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Tampa homeless program uses unpaid, destitute residents as steady labor force, revenue source

TAMPA — Before every Tampa Bay Buccaneers home game, dozens of men gather in the yard at New Beginnings of Tampa, one of the city's largest homeless programs.

The men — many of them recovering alcoholics and drug addicts — are about to work a concessions stand behind Raymond James Stadium's iconic pirate ship, serving beer and food to football fans. First, a supervisor for New Beginnings tries to pump them up.

"Thank God we have these events," he tells them. "They bring in the prime finances."

But not for the workers. They leave the game sweat-soaked and as penniless as they arrived. The money for their labor goes to New Beginnings. The men receive only shelter and food.

For years, New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison has sent his unpaid homeless labor crews to 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.

Atchison calls it "work therapy." Homeless advocates and labor lawyers call it exploitative, and possibly illegal. It is the latest questionable way Atchison has used homeless people, and public money, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

Now Atchison is applying to run Hillsborough County's new homeless shelter, a contract worth millions of public dollars that would entrust him with the county's most vulnerable people.

The Times reviewed thousands of pages of public records about New Beginnings, including police reports, bank statements, grant documents and court proceedings, and interviewed more than 20 current and former New Beginnings residents and employees. Among the findings:

• Employees and residents said Atchison took residents' Social Security checks and food stamps, even if they amounted to more than residents owed in program costs.

• A New Beginnings contractor told the Times he overbilled the state for at least $80,000 of grant money, then gave the money to the program instead of returning it.

• While claiming to provide counseling, New Beginnings employs no one clinically trained to work with addicts or the mentally ill. One minister cited his experience running a motorcycle gang as his top qualification. The Times couldn't verify the doctorate in theology Atchison said he earned from a defunct online school.

Atchison, 61, defended the work therapy as a vital component of his program, and an important source of revenue. He said he never stole any Social Security checks or food stamps.

New Beginnings barely makes enough to cover its costs, Atchison said, and without the money his men make working various jobs, he'd have to turn people away. He has devoted followers who say New Beginnings helped save their lives.

"Because of what we do at those games, we can afford to take guys off the street who have nothing and give them the opportunity to work and get their lives back together," Atchison said. "We take the guys no one else does."

To some former employees and residents, however, Atchison is more concerned with preserving the financial future of his program than providing genuine help.

"It needs to stop," said Lee Hoffman, a former New Beginnings resident and minister. "There are a bunch of homeless people who are being exploited."

'COMMUNITY HERO'

Better-known around New Beginnings as "PT" — short for "Pastor Tom" — Atchison was born in St. Paul, Minn., and moved to Fort Lauderdale as a teenager. The son of a Pentecostal preacher, Atchison called his upbringing strict. He said he has never sipped alcohol or used an illicit drug.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Pastor Tom Atchison

Atchison dreamed of becoming a teacher at a Bible college. Instead, he worked as a real estate broker before filing for personal bankruptcy in 1997. He also ran a "dented can store" — a place that sells damaged food bought in bulk from local groceries — on Tampa's rundown Nebraska Avenue.

In 1999, Atchison became pastor of New Life Pentecostal Church, a small congregation just off Nebraska Avenue in North Tampa. In 2002, he started New Beginnings in a house across the street from the church.

"What started to excite me was seeing real change in people's lives," Atchison said. "I never planned to work in this kind of ministry. Now I can't think of doing anything else."

Today, New Beginnings' properties are worth about $800,000, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office. They include a 36-bed emergency shelter at 8535 N Nebraska Ave. and a 144-bed complex spread across several converted homes at 1402 E Chilkoot Ave.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

New Beginnings' main complex on E Chilkoot Avenue.

New Beginnings operates three thrift stores that sell donated furniture. It also routinely wins grants, and is in the last year of a five-year, $274,000 contract with Veterans Affairs to provide 15 beds for homeless vets.

In 2013, the most recent tax forms publicly available, New Beginnings reported $932,816 in contributions and grant income and $823,407 in expenses.

Atchison said he earns only $18,000 per year, though his salary is not listed on New Beginnings' tax documents. Atchison is paid through the church, he said, whose salary information is not public record. He lives in a home on the Hillsborough River he said he rents for $800 per month.

New Beginnings charges its residents who can pay $150 a week, or $600 a month, which covers rent and three meals per day. Those without money work to cover their costs. Residents also agree to drug testing, curfews and sober living.

Metropolitan Ministries, the county's largest nonprofit assisting the homeless, has worked for years with New Beginnings.

"Their hearts truly seem to be in the right place," said Tim Marks, Metropolitan Ministries president and CEO.

In 2013, the Tampa Bay Lightning named Atchison a "Community Hero," honoring him with a mid-game celebration, a personalized jersey and a $50,000 check to New Beginnings.

THERAPY OR SERVITUDE?

Atchison has worked homeless residents in an array of jobs to bring money to New Beginnings. He's sent them to do construction, mow lawns, paint houses, move furniture. He started telemarketing and landscaping companies staffed by New Beginnings residents.

Around his church he's had them answer phones, write grants and play alongside him in the church's band. (Atchison plays trombone.)

"When they come in the program — this sounds a bit bad — they become our property to help us help them become new people," said Anthony Raburn, a minister who works with Atchison. "There are expenses that go along with that."

While his other work-for-shelter businesses have floundered, Atchison can count on one steady source of income: sporting events. Atchison declined to say how much money New Beginnings makes working games, but acknowledged it's a "substantial portion of our budget."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

New Beginnings of Tampa residents walk into Raymond James Stadium to work a concessions stand during a football game.

Aramark, which runs concessions at Raymond James Stadium, declined to comment. On the stadium website, a page about nonprofits volunteering for Aramark states that "some organizations raised up to $50,000 in one football season!"

Tampa Bay Rays concessionaire Center Plate told the Times it was unaware that homeless men worked for their room and board at games there.

"We are deeply concerned and have begun a close review of the partnership in question," wrote Keith King, chief legal officer. In its contracts with charities, King wrote, Center Plate prohibits sending volunteers "dependent upon the charity for food, clothing, shelter ... or any other necessities of life."

Labor lawyers told the Times a company can compensate employees with shelter and food but needs to document hours worked and the value of the housing and meals provided to ensure workers earn at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

New Beginnings does not keep track of hours worked, Atchison said.

"This is outrageous," said Catherine Ruckelshaus, general counsel for the National Employment Law Project, a labor advocacy group. "These workers are doing a job. They need to be treated with dignity."

Atchison said he models his program after the Salvation Army's Adult Rehabilitation Centers, where men work for the charity's thrift stores in exchange for room, board and counseling.

The Salvation Army's program is legal, experts said, because its members work only for the Salvation Army. When Atchison sends his men to provide labor to for-profit companies, they said, he may be breaking the Fair Labor Standards Act.

In the 1990s, a homeless program in New York City similar to New Beginnings ran into trouble for making money off its destitute residents.

The "Pathways to Employment" program — run by the Grand Central and 34th Street Partnerships, business organizations — provided shelter, food and counseling and put its residents to work clearing other homeless people from bank vestibules. While taking in hundreds of thousands of dollars, the partnerships paid their homeless employees $1 to $1.50 an hour.

In 1998, a federal judge ruled the program violated labor law. The partnerships had to pay more than $800,000 in owed wages to former employees.

"We don't have indentured servitude in this country anymore, do we?" said Doug Lasdon, a New York City homeless advocate involved with case. "We need to weed these programs out."

Legal or not, New Beginnings' work therapy raises ethical questions.

"People who are homeless are desperate," said Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "It's not an equal, typical relationship between a landlord and a tenant. … It should err on the side of protecting the homeless people who are more vulnerable in the relationship, and making sure their rights are preserved."

'CREATIVE DEPOSITS'

Ada Miller was there at the beginning. Disabled after surgery, she was on the verge of homelessness when Atchison offered her housing in 2002. Atchison soon asked Miller, an experienced secretary, to help manage his new program's finances.

In a 29-page sworn statement to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in June 2008, Miller described New Beginnings as a program conceived with good intentions that went awry. Miller went to law enforcement because she saw Atchison do "several illegal things," a report states, and "she does not want anything to do with anything that was illegal."

Atchison devised a "creative deposit" plan, Miller wrote, that allowed him to take public grant money intended for construction and use it for other things.

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In 2007, the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County provided New Beginnings with a state grant of up to $360,000 to build an 11-bed home for homeless children who had aged out of foster care.

The Homeless Coalition normally requires an organization to spend its own money, then bring receipts to get grant money for reimbursement. With this project, however, New Beginnings didn't have enough money to get started, so the Homeless Coalition fronted the first $75,000 in grant money. To get more, New Beginnings had to submit receipts verifying the money was used for construction.

For the construction job, Atchison turned to a former New Beginnings resident — Earl "Butch" McPhillips, a recovering crack cocaine addict and alcoholic. According to Miller's complaint, when Atchison paid McPhillips with grant money intended to cover construction costs, McPhillips donated some of it back to New Beginnings.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Earl "Butch" McPhillips

Another New Beginnings employee — Victoria Denton — told the FDLE she witnessed Atchison submit fraudulent receipts to the Homeless Coalition to validate expenses.

The FDLE subpoenaed New Beginnings' bank records, but reports don't indicate if agents reviewed them. The Times found transactions that support Miller's statements.

In summer 2007, records show, Atchison twice paid McPhillips $40,000 in grant money to cover construction costs. Both times, McPhillips immediately made $40,000 donations to New Beginnings.

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McPhillips submitted handwritten receipts to the Homeless Coalition to validate his expenses. The receipts included $30,000 for demolishing three buildings, $9,500 for "site clearing" and $5,000 for "tree removal." The Homeless Coalition accepted them.

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Initially, Atchison and McPhillips told the Times that Miller had lied. "Like I ever had $40,000," McPhillips said.

When told records showed he twice made $40,000 donations, McPhillips acknowledged he overbilled the Homeless Coalition. Rather than give the money back, McPhillips donated it to New Beginnings.

"Yeah, PT (Atchison) gave me a check, and I put it where it needs to be," said McPhillips, 65. "I wasn't in it for the money. … These people saved my life. What's my life worth?"

The house got built, and under budget, Atchison said. New Beginnings used only $311,000 of the grant, which Atchison said was a bargain.

The Times sent bid documents for the project to Michael Cook, a professor at the University of Florida's Rinker School of Building Construction. Cook found it odd the Homeless Coalition did not require Atchison to get multiple construction bids, a common practice.

"When there's public money involved, some sort of competitive bid-type process is usually required," Cook said, "to make sure taxpayer's dollars are protected."

Cook, who specializes in project estimating, said the job could have been done for about $230,000, or about $80,000 less than New Beginnings spent.

Officials with the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, the new name for the agency that oversaw the grant, said that grant did not require multiple bids. In an email, agency CEO Antoinette Hayes Triplett said her staff is reviewing all documents associated with this grant and "will determine whether further actions are required."

'WHAT I SAW WAS WRONG'

It is not unusual for drug and alcohol recovery programs to supervise residents' finances to make it harder for them to relapse.

But the way Atchison controls his residents' finances has prompted complaints to law enforcement and to the Times that New Beginnings kept money meant for its impoverished residents.

Denton, the other New Beginnings employee who went to the FDLE, said she witnessed Atchison open homeless residents' mail, take Social Security checks and deposit them in New Beginnings accounts, and use food stamp cards to buy food for himself.

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In a recent Times interview, Denton stood by her statement. She went to authorities, she said, because she feared she could get arrested for what she witnessed.

"I don't lie. What I saw was wrong," she said. "If a check comes in, it doesn't matter if it's your name, my name, or Timbuktu's name, it's going in his (Atchison's) name."

Other former New Beginnings employees also told the Times that Atchison took money from Social Security checks and food stamps provided by his homeless residents and kept more than residents actually owed for room and board.

"He would say, 'They're drug addicts, they're alcoholics, they're just going to spend it on cigarettes and booze,' " said Lee Hoffman, the formerly homeless minister who worked for Atchison off and on from 2007 to 2010. "The only way they get any of it is if they complain hard enough."

Atchison said all the mail for New Beginnings' properties is delivered to his office and he deposits Social Security checks into New Beginnings accounts to cover program costs. He said he never kept more that what the residents owed.

"I've saved a lot of lives by opening mail," Atchison said.

In July 2008, Bradley Boyce went to Tampa police after spending seven months at New Beginnings. He said that when he was ready to leave, he asked for his money.

"There was no money," a manager told him. Irate, Boyce kept complaining until he got a check for $1,200 — which bounced.

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A Tampa police officer learned the FDLE was investigating New Beginnings and contacted Agent Barbara Smith, who told him she "has not uncovered anything criminal or of concern," the report states.

The Tampa officer closed his case without seeking charges. Boyce called back and said Atchison finally paid him.

Boyce "is happy now," the officer wrote. "He still thinks that there are things going on that are shady and should be looked at."

The FDLE closed its eight-month investigation in November 2008 without seeking charges. FDLE's Smith wrote that claims against Atchison were either untrue or didn't rise to criminal activity. She could not be reached for comment.

Miller, the woman who first went to the FDLE, remains frustrated.

"The pastor deserved to be held accountable," she said. "I did my part as a citizen, and the ball was dropped."

DUBIOUS CREDENTIALS

On Atchison's application to run Hillsborough's homeless shelter, he cites a 1992 doctoral degree in theology from Berean Bible College.

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In interviews with the Times, Atchison said Berean was based in Missouri, then Colorado. When asked for the diploma, he produced one with a different location — Long Beach, Calif. — and a different date — 1996.

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The National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that performs degree verification, has no record of Berean College. There was a Berean Christian College in Long Beach in the 1980s and 90s. It closed and was reincorporated in Colorado before closing again.

To Atchison, questions about his doctorate are irrelevant. No New Beginnings employee has a college or graduate degree in a field related to counseling addicts or the mentally ill.

"There's really no class that teaches you how to deal with what we've got here," he said.

To illustrate his point, Atchison introduced James "Beetel" Ellis, who runs New Beginnings' emergency shelter. Ellis has several ministerial degrees but dismisses their value.

"They don't count for credits or nothing," he said.

What qualifies him to run a homeless shelter and counsel its residents? "My experience running a motorcycle gang for 25 years," Ellis said. "I've pulled every hook, crook and crime there is. So when they try to pull it on me, I call them on it."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Pastor James "Beetel" Ellis, director of New Beginnings Emergency Shelter

The counseling provided at New Beginnings consists of Bible study, led by Atchison, and nightly recovery meetings at his church, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

"We kind of go to each other for counseling," said Austin Wheaton, 21, who has bipolar disorder and came to the program this summer.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Austin Wheaton

For some, New Beginnings' counseling worked.

In 2010, Steve Eavenson came to New Beginnings from a mental health facility. The homeless sex offender, who said he was sexually abused as a child, was an alcoholic and had considered suicide. He finally sobered up at New Beginnings.

"This place absolutely saved my life," said Eavenson, 58. Years later, he still works 40 to 50 hours a week for New Beginnings, never expecting a paycheck. The roof over his head Atchison provides is enough.

"He's one of the reasons I stay," Eavenson said. "I've heard a lot of preachers. But when I heard him, it was like he was speaking to me."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Steve Eavenson

Others feel exploited by the loosely organized counseling and mandatory work.

James Kelly, an admitted pain-pill addict, stayed at New Beginnings for a few weeks in 2012. He said he left after not getting paid for the hours he worked at Rays games.

"You have to work for them, and they drug test you," said Kelly, 34. "I guess that's what they call counseling."

CHANGE ON THE WAY

New Beginnings is one of three agencies applying to run Hillsborough County's proposed homeless shelter, a contract potentially worth $1.6 million annually. The competition includes the Salvation Army and DACCO, a facility that treats people with substance abuse problems and mental illness.

If New Beginnings gets the shelter contract, and some other grants, Atchison wants to increase his salary.

"I should be making $100,000-plus a year," he said. "And not apologizing for it. I deserve it.

Atchison also wants to start paying his employees.

"I've been feeling bad," he said. "For 15 years, all these people have worked their butts off, and have nothing. ... And they are all happy… . Oh, Pastor Tom, you saved my life, I'll do anything for you. … But it shouldn't be that way. We want to start giving people a future."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Will Hobson at whobson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.

Tampa homeless program uses unpaid, destitute residents as steady labor force, revenue source 11/29/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 16, 2014 1:30pm]
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