French Quarter charity solicitations drive merchants to press for restrictions

Times-Picayune Staff By Times-Picayune Staff The Times-Picayune
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on August 18, 2011 at 11:30 PM

On Bourbon Street, they blend into the chaos. The endless stream of neon daiquiri cups, the come-ons of the strip-club barkers. The girls in short-shorts hustling test-tube Jell-O shots. The age-old panhandler's riddle: "I bet I can tell you where you got dem shoes."

food_for_life_hare_krishna.jpgView full sizeFood for Life serves free vegetarian meals on Sunday evenings. This plate of rice and peas was photographed there in September 2007.

Members of the "Party Patrol" scan this swirling crowd, searching for tourists taking in the French Quarter spectacle. When they spot an appropriate quarry, they move in, telling a bewildered tourist that he or she has violated the law.

Whipping out phony ticket books, these "officers" cite offenses such as "not smiling," "not having enough fun," and "being too pretty."

Then they hand the tourist a hat, asking for a donation of $10 or $20 or $40. They say the money is used to feed the hungry, though some business owners and residents are skeptical of that claim.

The cash they take in goes to Food For Life of New Orleans, a relief program operated by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a Hare Krishna temple in the 2900 block of Esplanade Avenue, group leaders said. A second group of solicitors, whose leaders say they do not pose as the Party Patrol, raise money for a sister organization on the Gulf Coast, which operates out of a Krishna temple in Mississippi.

The Krishnas came to New Orleans in the late 1960s. Earl Bernhardt, co-owner of Tropical Isle and several other large bars on Bourbon Street, said he has been working in New Orleans for 27 years and cannot remember a time when they weren't soliciting in the Quarter.

"If I pass them with tourists, I tell them it's the Hare Krishnas and it's a rip-off," he said.

Bernhardt views the group as "scam artists," though he clearly also sees them as competition. "When visitors give $40 to those guys, that's $40 they aren't spending at our businesses," he said.

Bernhardt and other business owners hope that a proposed ordinance that would crack down on aggressive styles of solicitation will put a damper on the Party Patrol and others hustling donations. The ordinance, which would restrict the activities of nonprofits that solicit in the French Quarter and the Central Business District, was drafted by a newly formed group called New Orleans Seizing Control Against Misrepresentation, or NOSCAM. It was supposed to be introduced Thursday, but was delayed.

If adopted, the Charitable Solicitation Act will require charities to register with the city and provide records showing how they spend their money. It would also set guidelines that prohibit manipulative soliciting.

"I am authoring the ordinance to support the protection of visitors, residents and businesses from deliberate and aggressive tactics that negatively impact the French Quarter and Central Business District," said Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who represents the Quarter.

The ordinance comes in the wake of a report by hospitality workers with the Downtown Development District who saw the Party Patrol in action by a police barricade on Bourbon Street.

The report said that one "patrolman" blocked the passage of an elderly woman in a wheelchair while pushing for a donation. It also quoted several solicitors telling people: "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." When the DDD hospitality rangers intervened, the solicitor flipped them "the bird" and used a microphone to mock them, the report said.

Monique Sullivan, an Algiers resident, told The Times-Picayune she took her kids to Café Du Monde when they returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. As they left, a solicitor tried to sell her a hat, saying the proceeds would go to Katrina victims.

"It seemed sketchy, so I said no," Sullivan said. "But he blocked my path and said, 'What kind of example is that to set for kids?'"

Sullivan relented and gave the man $10. But the man wanted more.

"He told me 'Well, that's one kid and you've got two kids -- how can you just pick one?'" Sullivan said.

Some also question if the money goes where "patrolmen" say it does.

Collie Edwards, assistant executive director at the New Orleans Council on Aging, said he received numerous calls from tourists who were led to believe that the Party Patrol was affiliated with the Council on Aging's Meals on Wheels program for the elderly.

"A lady from Minnesota called to request a new cap," Edwards said. "She said she lost the one she bought on the street and wanted to make a second donation for a new one. Our organization does not sell caps. We do not solicit on the street. These people have absolutely nothing to do with us."

The website for Food For Life Gulf Coast, meanwhile, claims the organization is registered at "New Orleans Meals on Wheels."

"Meals on Wheels does not register anyone," Edwards said. "We simply feed the elderly."

Maharani Berg, the founder of the Gulf Coast organization, admitted the statement is untrue. She said she does not use the Internet, and will tell "the girl" that runs her site to correct it.

"After the BP oil spill, they claimed they were raising money to help," said Robert Watters, the owner of Rick's Cabaret and the president of the Bourbon Street Merchants Association. "Once, I heard the money was for Musicians Village. Another time, it was for the Lower 9th Ward. It seems like an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of charities."

The proposed ordinance, in addition to a City Business report that revealed both false donation claims and aggressive tactics on the part of the Party Patrol, may lead the Party Patrol to mellow its pitches.

"I cannot confirm or deny that solicitors exhibited aggressive behavior, because I did not personally witness it and have not received complaints," said Jon Kaufman, executive director of Food For Life New Orleans. "But if it's making people upset, we will consider changing the 'Party Patrol' name or simply not use it."

Meanwhile, Paul Turner, director of Food for Life Global, said the international parent organization does not approve of street soliciting, period, in an Aug. 15 post on the group's website.

"We abhor all street solicitations," he said, "for the simple reason that it is impossible to monitor and therefore presents an opportunity for exploitation by unscrupulous people."

Despite the controversy around the group, it is clear the Food For Life groups do feed people. The line for their "vegetarian feast," held at 7 p.m. every Sunday, often has a line out the gate, spilling onto Esplanade.

Jennifer Torquati, a Krishna congregation member and law student at Loyola University, said Food for Life helps her eat on a student budget. She is training to be a solicitor for the group.

"The temple provides free breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day," Torquati said. "There are several people who live at the temple. ... They do full-time temple service, and I'm sure they could not do that without the Food for Life collectors who work in the French Quarter."

Hannah Miet wrote this report. She can be reached at or 504.826.3318.