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The Exploitation that Turned Out Not to Be

Tampa

Tampa

Last fall, Will Hobson wrote about one of the most extensive homeless programs in Tampa, Florida, and its connection to large public sports events:

For years, New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison has sent his unpaid homeless labor crews to work at Tampa Bay Rays, Lightning and Bucs games, the Daytona 500 and the Florida State Fair. For their shelter, he’s had homeless people work in construction, landscaping, telemarketing, moving, painting, even grant-writing.

At any given time, the program serves around 100 men, women, and young adults, many of whom are veterans. Many are also recovering addicts and alcoholics, and Atchison places great importance on work therapy. But the Tampa Bay Times, which undertook an investigation, believed that exploitation of the homeless was underway. Drug and alcohol recovery programs often supervise their residents’ financial lives because that way, it is harder to relapse. But Atchison was also accused of appropriating the residents’ Social Security payments and SNAP benefits, even when the total was more than what they owed the program for their housing and food.

Along with renting out the New Beginnings residents to other companies, Atchison has also started landscaping and telemarketing companies. Legally, each person is supposed to make $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage, but according to labor attorneys consulted by the Times, this did not appear to be the case. Hobson’s article compared it to an earlier case in New York State in which a federal judge made a program pay $800,000 in withheld wages to its former employees.

A Fresh Start For New Beginnings, With Proper Wages

By the second week of December, it was announced that the Buccaneers, Lightning, and Rays had all ended their relationship with the inadequately paid workers. Various media outlets flung around terms like indentured servitude and slave labor. Sources the Tampa Bay Times called “homeless advocates” might actually have been disgruntled n’er-do-wells. If someone was ejected from the program for breaking the no-substance pledge and other rules, “going to the media” would be a weapon of revenge.

At the same time, some residents were interviewed who had no complaints and said the program had saved their lives. Just before Christmas, the Tampa Bay Times published an eloquent letter by Brandon Jones that summed up the view held by defenders of New Beginnings and its founder.

Let me see if I have this straight. Pastor Tom Atchison of New Beginnings takes in drug addicts, criminals and sex offenders—basically the unemployable dregs of society whom no other institution will care for—and gives them free room and board, and probably clothing too.

In return he asks the men to pay for their costly care by working a few hours a week at jobs in the community for (at most) pocket money. Nobody is compelled to stay at his homeless shelter and as I understand it nobody is prevented from finding additional employment to earn a few dollars if they so choose. And while in Atchison’s care they are gaining basic job skills, and building a record of steady employment and sobriety that can help them to return to normal society.

At the end of the month a different newspaper, the Tampa Tribune, announced what seemed to be a win-win resolution of the problem, with the old contracting company (Aramark) out of the picture, a new company called All Team Staffing in the driver’s seat, and an even greater number of New Beginnings residents employed, under improved terms. There is more work to do because the new contract includes not just selling concessions, but cleanup after the sporting events. Mike Salinero reported:

The Rev. Tom Atchison, the Pentecostal preacher who founded New Beginnings, said the arrangement through All Team Staffing is better than the Aramark contract because the workers get paychecks with taxes and Social Security taken out.

In March of this year, the Tampa Tribune carried a piece by the New Beginnings leader, Tom Atchison. This is definitely worth reading in its entirety, but here are the main points:

New Beginnings has survived but has had to cut a lot of services because of the loss of income caused by the bogus articles. We will continue to rebuild our services as the truth continues to surface.

After the careful and extensive examination of the financial records of New Beginnings and the interviews of several employees and clients, federal investigators concluded that there were no violations of record keeping or labor laws.

New Beginnings makes no apologies for requiring clients to pay a part of their expenses by working. We want to teach them a work ethic and not to depend on the government and others to support them.

People who hit the streets, with intractable substance use problems, are often not angels. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Such difficult people tend to want everything handed to them, and react badly to rules like “work or move out”—an attitude that could account for the troubles that originally set them on the path to a last-resort rehab center. Everyone deserves a second chance, but people who answer the call to be in the second-chance business are allowed, on behalf of society as a whole, to set boundaries and enact real consequences.


Source: “Tampa homeless program uses unpaid, destitute residents as steady labor force, revenue source,” TampaBay.com, 11/29/14
Source: “Letters: Good work at New Beginnings is being punished,” TampaBay.com, 12/19/14
Source: “New Beginnings’ clients working at RayJay again after federal probe,” TBO.com, 12/29/14
Source: “The truth about New Beginnings of Tampa,” TPB.com, 03/28/15
Image by Walter