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L.A.-based mission is "on the up and up,' leaders say

On Skid Row, where their ministry began almost 50 years ago, the faithful of the Los Angeles Mission thought they had a winning formula of food, faith and fund-raising. So into the land of fly-by-night roofers and winter scam artists they came, hoping to preach the Gospel, house the homeless of Tampa and St. Petersburg and offer free Thanksgiving dinners for the needy.

In a mass mailing that began reaching Tampa residents Saturday, they asked the public to pay for that dinner with donations in increments of $1.57. In L.A., with supplements of free food, that is the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner.

And the people answered.

They called the U.S. Postal Service, triggering an investigation into whether the group is legitimate. They called the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, worried about fraud. They called established missions including Metropolitan Ministries, looking for answers, and were met with concern about the credibility of the newcomers.

The backlash seemed to surprise the missionaries.

"I guess the city's really gotten ripped off by other people," said Armando Toledo Jr., a Los Angeles Mission worker who moved to Tampa in September to start the Tampa City Mission in a leased church at 1002 E Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The group had no track record in the Tampa Bay area, but it did assume the debts and bad publicity generated by the unrelated Downtown Rescue Mission, a failed St. Petersburg group that solicited $1.57 donations from 200,000 Pinellas County residents last year, even though it had no place to house the poor and no ability to serve meals.

By April, their money spent and their mission crumbling, the Downtown Rescue Mission leaders sought help from the Los Angeles Mission group, which had similar goals, said Michael Greer. Greer runs the resulting new organization, the St. Petersburg City Mission, which offers three daily meals and prayer. On Tuesday it housed 49 homeless people in the Driftwood Motel.

Greer said the former Downtown Rescue Mission leaders also used the $1.57 figure in their sales pitch, because they purchased their advertising from the Russ Reed Co., a Pasadena, Calif.-based advertising company that lists the Los Angeles Mission among its clients.

"We're on the up and up," Greer said.

It was through the St. Petersburg mission that the California group came to Tampa and decided to expand its homeless program across the bay, Greer said.

The Los Angeles Mission is recognized as a non-profit organization by the Internal Revenue Service, and on Tuesday afternoon registered with the state, said Rudy Hamrick, who processed its application with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"They are a bona fide religious organization through their California status," said Hamrick.

The Tampa City Mission now is home to nine men who have left behind a life on the streets of drug abuse, alcoholism and poverty. Toledo, who runs the Tampa program with a secretary and full-time chaplain, said the men will remain for a 13-month residential program that is supposed to teach job skills, introduce religion and make them productive.

"I'm just here trying to bring them some hope," Toledo said. He plans to feed Thanksgiving dinners to more than 500 people and then will offer daily lunches.

The Tampa City Mission has set for itself a $495,000 fund-raising goal for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 and began raising money in September with a direct mail campaign and advertisements in the Tampa Tribune.

Almost half that money could go for salaries and fund-raising costs. Toledo said 18 percent of that money will pay the three administrative salaries. Matt Bates, the director of mass fund-raising in Los Angeles, said the established California mission spends between 15 and 18 percent of donated funds for fund-raising expenses, but anticipates that number will be considerably higher at the new missions because of start-up expenses.