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.
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.
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.”•