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Aggressive French Quarter solicitors may not deliver on donation promises

Six diminutive men position themselves at the intersection of Bourbon and Iberville streets. Their tiny hands grasp stacks of multicolored baseball hats, eyes darting back and forth, on the lookout for potential marks.

A member of the Food for Life Party Patrol, left, issues a "citation" on Bourbon Street. (photo by Tracie Morris Schafer)

It’s past 7 p.m. Police barricades erected in the middle of Bourbon Street block passage, forcing pedestrians onto either sidewalk.

It’s a strategy straight out of “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu — funnel your adversary, or in this case prospective donors, into narrow canyons, making them easier to pick off, one by one.

Herds of tourists shuffle toward each access point, and that’s when the Hare Krishnas strike.

Few escape unmolested.

They fan out, wearing hats emblazoned with the words, “Party Patrol,” and obstruct the paths of their targets. They tell the surprised and unsuspecting tourists they are in violation of the law.

“I’m going to have to write you a citation,” a Hare Krishna says, pulling out a book of fake tickets from his pockets.

The violations include made-up transgressions such as “being too pretty,” “failure to smile” or “not having a good time.” The only way to settle the matter, they say, is to purchase one of their hats for $10 or more.

To locals, the ruse is obvious, but to unknowing tourists who might have had one too many cocktails, the trappings of the Party Patrol create an air of authority and a level of pressure many feel they must succumb to, said Robert Watters, owner of Rick’s Cabaret and president of the Bourbon Street Merchants Association.

It seems innocent enough, but it gets worse.

The men are volunteers with Food for Life, a Hare Krishna organization that claims to provide free meals to the needy. Watters says they harass and intimidate anyone who hesitates to make a donation, verbally abusing those who try to walk away. And in an attempt to close the deal, they falsely claim donations will go to local charities.

Many people who come to New Orleans are on a limited budget, and losing $20 not only hurts their ability to enjoy their vacation but takes money out of the local economy, Watters said.

Managers at Bourbon House restaurant, one block from the Hare Krishnas’ main choke point, routinely hear complaints from their customers, said Allison Tryon, marketing manager for its parent organization Dickie Brennan and Co.

“Our guests are often confronted by them and when they come in, they say that felt weird or uncomfortable or that they felt harassed. It’s not the experience you want people to have when they’re walking in the doors of your restaurant,” Tryon said.

For-profit organizations are required to obtain a permit to solicit in the French Quarter, but religious and charitable groups, such as the Hare Krishnas, are exempt. Police are helpless because the Party Patrol isn’t breaking any law, although authorities have received numerous complaints, said Roger Jones, quality of life officer for the New Orleans Police Department’s 8th District.

In response to the growing problem of groups such as Food for Life, a coalition of French Quarter residents and businesses called New Orleans Seizing Control Against Misrepresentation, or NOSCAM, has drafted an ordinance designed to rein in these activities.

The Charitable Solicitation Act, expected to be introduced before the City Council Aug. 18, would govern the activities of charitable organizations in the French Quarter and Central Business District. It requires each group to register with the city and provide financial records to prove they are using donations for their stated purpose.

Donations in doubt
Gopal Sarkar, a Food for Life volunteer who solicited donations with seven other people on Bourbon Street last Saturday, claimed his organization uses all the money they raise to provide food to local groups such as Covenant House, Bridge House and the Big Easy Metropolitan Church.

His claim, however, isn’t true.

The Big Easy Metropolitan Church, a Christian sanctuary serving the gay community, hasn’t received any donations from Food for Life in the past year, board member Lance Baggett said.

Else Pedersen-Wasson, executive director of the substance abuse treatment facility Bridge House, said it severed ties with Food for Life more than a year ago because of an undisclosed conflict.

“They used to drop off a few pans of prepared food, but we instructed our kitchen staff not to accept anything from them anymore,” Pedersen-Wasson said.

James Kelly, executive director of Covenant House, said he was appalled to hear that Food for Life was using the homeless youth shelter’s name to raise money. Maybe once every six months, they would drop off a “very small” fruit basket, he said.

“We have no relationship with this group whatsoever. It makes me mad,” Kelly said. “I’ve got twice as many kids as I had four months ago, real kids with real needs who need to be fed. And to have a group out there telling people they are helping to take care of our kids when that’s not true at all, it’s pretty sad.”

Food for Life of New Orleans is a member agency of Second Harvest Food Bank and receives monthly donations of fresh produce to distribute at its headquarters at 2936 Esplanade Ave. Reports submitted by Food for Life to Second Harvest indicate it serves up to 900 people per month.

Food for Life also told Second Harvest it provides meals to Covenant House, Bridge House and Big Easy Church. In light of recent evidence that casts doubt on those claims, Second Harvest will conduct an official investigation into the group, said Natalie Jayroe, president and CEO of the food bank.

This is one of the most common and serious allegations lodged against Food for Life. Watters said he has heard Party Patrol solicitors tell people they were collecting money to help victims of the BP oil spill and to raise homes in the Lower 9th Ward. Jones with the NOPD said he received reports they were telling people they were involved with Musician’s Village.

Food for Life did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Aggressive tactics
The Charitable Solicitation Act also regulates the hours and locations groups can operate, as well as their behavior. Physical intimidation or verbal harassment would not be tolerated.

On May 9, during Jazz Fest, two Downtown Development District rangers witnessed a Party Patrol member block the passage of an elderly woman in a wheelchair on Bourbon Street in an attempt to sell her a hat, according to a DDD report. When the rangers intervened, the Party Patrol volunteer, using an amplified microphone, announced for all to hear that the rangers were an illegal organization. He then directed an obscene hand gesture at the rangers.

“They were overheard telling people, often while pointing at the NOPD logo on the barricade, ‘You’re not allowed to have an open container, so you can pay your fine now and receive a hat, or pay a larger fine at the end of the street,’” the DDD report stated. “While relaying this information to confused pedestrians, they also tended more often than not to physically block their right-of-way on each end of the barricade.”

Algiers resident Monique Sullivan, who is scheduled to testify before the city council in support of the proposed NOSCAM ordinance, said a member of the Party Patrol approached her shortly after Hurricane Katrina while she was walking down Bourbon Street with her two daughters.

He claimed to be collecting money for hurricane victims and when she declined to make a donation he “got in her face” and said, “What kind of parent are you? Are you trying to teach your children it’s not ok to help other people?”

“Their tactics are very aggressive,” Sullivan said. “They’re not like the Santa Clauses outside Wal-Mart who ask for a donation and if you say no, they leave you alone. It’s definite manipulation. They tried to use my kids against me and that’s the grossest part.”

During another confrontation near the Walgreen’s on Decatur Street, Sullivan said she challenged the Party Patrol member to tell her where the money goes.

“He said, ‘I am a Hare Krishna and we keep the money. What do you have against it?’” she said.

Groups such as Food for Life, using the same aggressive tactics, have been operating in the French Quarter for as long as Jones, a 14-year NOPD veteran, can recall. But the problem has gotten increasingly worse in recent years, he said.

Money and impact
The NOSCAM ordinance, however, might not be necessary, said Matthew Mullenix, vice president of communications for the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations. These groups are already required to register with the state and file financial records with the Internal Revenue Service, which are available online, he said.

Food for Life Gulf Coast Inc. is a registered non-profit with the Louisiana Secretary of State. Its address is listed at 627 Mandeville St., though its website has them based in Gulfport, Miss.

Food for Life New Orleans Inc. raised $63,231 in gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees in 2005, according to its tax filings. That number jumped to $181,258 in 2009, a 187 percent increase. In the five-year period, it raised a total of $682,641.

The IRS records do not, however, detail whether the money they raise is used to provide food to local charities as they claim. It also does nothing to regulate their aggressive behavior, and that’s the point, Watters said.

“We’re not trying to stop charitable solicitations or interfere with people’s constitutional rights to free speech and assembly,” he said. “We just want to stop them from operating under the color of authority, threatening and intimidating people, and pretending to be something they’re not.”•

13 comments

  1. No one is allowed to solicit in the Quarter except these phonies with their so called religious agenda. The city does not issue permits for any organization to solicit in the Quarter.

    Else where in the city it’s OK with a permit but there are no permits for the Quarter.

  2. Great job in identifying a big problem, now the fix should be an easy one. Too bad this will take 500 city meetings with no action. Seriously, this city won’t allow a developer to build a source of money on a street that should be at the heart of commerce for this area, but this is allowed to just endlessly happen.

    Pop quiz: How many people have to notice a problem in New Orleans before something gets done about it?
    Answer: Can I get a go cup?

  3. At least tourists get a hat for $10 for their harassment. Unlike the folks in these videos on Moonwalk who just get took. Will NOSCAM be helping out with these as well? http://bit.ly/ruKsqV and http://bit.ly/pttG4e

  4. Dear Sirs,

    Thank you for the opportunity to reply to Mr.Richard Walters’s article about the “Hare Krishna” fundraisers for Food for Life of New Orleans, Inc. & Food for Life of Gulf Coast, Inc.

    Quite to the contrary Mr. Walters did not give us that opportunity; although he claims he made repeated attempts. To whom I have no idea; but none of the leaders of our little communities have heard a peep from Mr. Waters nor anyone else quoted in the article. The article is ideal example of one sided slanted give the dog a bad name and hang it journalism.

    Wherever, Mr. Walters is correct we will certainly correct our organization; but where he is wrong he should publicly say so. For example: some of our fundraisers are wearing these party patrol customs on Bourbon Street in the Big Easy having fun issuing obviously funny citations to intelligent red blooded Americans who either give or don’t give; and they’re been doing it for a score or more. Yet some people want to quote a few instances of people not appreciating these so called overly aggressive fundraisers. Who knows if they actually worked for us? To the best of my knowledge the FFL fundraisers are reported to the quality life officer of the NOPD in the French Quarter.

    I will do my best to clean up the so called party patrol. Will Mr. Richard Walters give us a fair shake and take a better look at the FFL food distribution since he missed it in his investigation ? Will Mr. Walters and Mr. Waters appreciate that we have as much right to be on the public streets of New Orleans introducing people to a charitable organization as they have practicing their chosen occupations, journalism and business. Mr. Waters’s bar is there 24 hours a day selling drinks while FFL has some fundraisers soliciting donations to feed people; and we do feed people. Mayor Morial commemorated our one millionth meal in 2001.

    There appears to be a word limit.

    Thank you,
    John Berg
    husband of a FFL director of the Gulf Coast

  5. Mr. Berg–

    How can I get in touch with you? You can reach me at richard.webster@nopg.com

  6. WHAT ARE CRITICS DOING FOR THE COMMUNITY?

    City Business’s article regarding the integrity of Food For Life of New Orleans Inc. is libelous in its misinformation and its attempt to damage the reputation of one of the few organizations in New Orleans that has consistently served the public selflessly and without interruption for more than 30 years. Born out of perverse jealousy whose motive is nothing less than subduing what is coldly calculated as business competition, certain Bourbon Street shop and club owners have chosen media slur tactics to try to assist their bottom lines. If only such tactics would work on their neighboring business competitors the absurdly quoted Art of War would certainly have a new chapter. Unfortunately such low blows only work well where convenient prejudices pre-exist below the surface and religious slurs can help fuel and cover lies, half truths and crafty innuendos.

    Simply put, Food For Life is a fully legitimate charitable organization, as much or more so than any of the organizations listed in City’s article. It has by far distributed more free meals than any charitable group in the history of New Orleans and continues to do so on a daily basis. It invites any interested party to come and observe its activities and to eat freely to his or her full satisfaction on any day or night of the week with no questions asked.

    To prove its integrity, Food for Life would welcome and endorse any governmental agency that would review the actual charitable activities that organizations profess to perform. We actually think that such an agency is long overdue. Perhaps, simultaneously, a special agency should be established to assure that all retail sales taxes are being honestly remitted to assist sorely needed community services. And another agency to close tax loopholes that FQ retailers routinely jump through to avoid their state and local responsibilities. If we’re applying a microscope to cheating practices let’s audit across the board.

    Food For Life/International Society For Krishna Consciousness fundraisers perform fundraising activities in both names and display both names prominently on their ID’s. Food distribution is also enacted under both names, so that, for instance, Big Easy Church receives meals from ISKCON, not from Food For Life. Therefore it becomes misleading when Big Easy is quoted as saying it does not receive from FFL. If asked if it receives from ISKCON it will undoubtedly affirm its weekly input. Bridge House is a similar case. Fundraisers do not identify Covenant House as a current recipient but may offer it as an example of an erstwhile, longtime client.

    Regarding fundraising tactics, FFL’s style has evolved throughout the years to compete with the barrage of entertainment that assaults FQ visitors. Getting a passerby’s attention is not easy in the circus environment of Bourbon or Decatur Streets. Clowns, musicians, acrobats, tap dancers, restaurant and club barkers constantly vie for the stage, and our fundraisers have devised what we perceive as a humorous, entertaining, interactive approach that is 99% non aggressive and pleases most people’s sense of fun and humor while helping a worthy cause. Rare instances of dissatisfaction may occur, unlike the highly prejudiced characterization of our famous detractor, Rick Watters, a modern day Scrooge who would rather snarl and foam than visit FFL’s facility to see what really goes on. FFL had requested meetings with the Bourbon Street Business Association on multiple occasions this year to address concerns but were denied access to the smoked filled war rooms of the merchants’ inner sanctum.

    FFL and ISKCON have tolerated decades of bigoted and ignorant abuse from the likes of strip club owners, salacious souvenir hawkers and other morally questionable profiteers who prey on the public in their own inimitable ways. What have they done for the citizens of New Orleans and particularly the less fortunate? FFL deserves support from the entire community including businesses that would do well to add a touch of good works to their portfolios.

    Jon Kaufman
    Director
    Food For Life of New Orleans, Inc.

  7. Thank you,
    Richard, sorry I called you Walters while your name is Webster like the famous Daniel Webster. I hope we can get together.
    sincerely,
    John Berg

  8. People unfamiliar with these activities need to know that the Bourbon St. solicitors’ behavior described in the article was only an example of the behavior practiced on many other streets, including Decatur, Canal, Royal and Chartres. And Mr. Kaufman needs to be reminded that Bourbon St. is comprised of not just “strip clubs,” but other type businesses, such as the fine, generations-old restaurant, Arnauds. This proprietor is constantly plagued by solicitors cornering prospective customers reading the menu, thus distracting them from going into the restaurant.

    BJF
    Founder, NOSCAM

  9. This article is a perfect example of another business owner desiring to fulfill his own agenda. The French Quarter is full of “scams” and instead of putting a charitable organization in the spotlight and pegging them as a “scam”, why don’t we level the playing field and address the aggressive tap dance kids that frighten and harass tourists right outside of Arnaud’s and Rick’s Cabaret when they demand money and the tourists won’t give or the shoe shine guys that make a bet about “where you got ‘dem shoes” and demand money as they smear cheap polish on tourists’ shoes before the tourists can run away or the thieves that pretend to be mute or handicapped and demand “donations” from tourists just so they can feed their drug habit.

    I understand Mr. Watter’s frustration as a business owner. I have a foot massage spa right beside my business and my customer traffic suffers from Chinese people hawking at tourists from every direction screaming “free sample” as they are drug inside and then made to pay money for a foot massage. This could also be deemed as one type “scam”. However, there is a distinct difference between a registered business or organization using tactics to augment their income and a criminal or thief engaging in illegal activities. All French Quarter business owners wish they could “pave the way” outside of their establishment doorway for an obstacle free line of potential customers. But we have to figure out who is the real enemy and choose our battles.

    At least tourists get a souvenir and a laugh for their time and money spent with Food For Life. Many tourists walk into my store wearing hats that they donated for on the street and tell of their entertaining experience as they flash their little fake “citations”.

    Why don’t we turn the spotlight on Rick’s Cabaret and do an investigation of what possible illegal activities may be going on inside.

    If City Business needs to write a captivating article for their readers, I’ve got one…. “Business Owners Fear Who Will Be Hit Next As Shoplifters Run Rampant on Chartres Street And Police Appear On The Scene Five Hours After They Are Called”.
    Let the cops fight real crime that negatively affects tourism and tourists’ perception of the city of New Orleans. Real crime is rampant in the Quarter. Let’s turn our time and attention toward the real crooks!

  10. Mr. Webster obviously collected information from those who watch the party patrol and other similar \charitable peddlers\ on the street all day and evening long. This is both residents and merchants. And the comments made in this article are correct no matter how you spin them. Visitor tales are many, and unfortunately they will be told when they return home. And please, quit wearing hats that say \Security\ – visitors are intimidated by this sham and feel obiliged to stop and listen. When a charity is valid in their solicitiatons and their donations to the community they should be able to be upfront with those they speak to and not try tricks and intimidation to gain support.

  11. Thank you Gracie. Anyone reading the article can use good reasoning powers to see that it is based on triple-checked facts. And, Mr. Webster did not just collect information from others, but was on the street being approached with the aggressive behavior himself. The bottom line for the issue is in the last paragraph of the article, Mr. Watters’ quote, and should not be overshadowed by those trying to switch the focus.

    BJF

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