Critics say national charity exploiting homeless vets

by: Kerry Kavanaugh Updated:

Critics say the Veterans Support Organization's methods of fundraising are taking advantage of the veterans it claims to help.

SNELLVILLE, Ga. - Channel 2 Action News has discovered a national charity, accused of exploiting homeless veterans, has set up shop in Georgia.

Critics say the Veterans Support Organization's methods of fundraising are taking advantage of the veterans it claims to help.

Channel 2's Kerry Kavanaugh spent weeks digging into the group's activities. Kavanaugh first heard of this group when its representatives approached her to do a story about their work.

The Veterans Support Organization claims its work program is putting homeless veterans back on their feet. The program consists of little more than donation buckets and smiles.

The VSO pays the veterans minimum wage to solicit donations outside storefronts year round.

Channel 2 Action News has discovered once the money hits the bucket, only a small percentage is donated to veterans in need.

"They're fleecing the American public," said Charlie Tucker, past president of the Georgia Department of the American Legion. "You're not training me to do anything but be a panhandler."

Tucker says any program for veterans should entail much more than that. He also questioned where all the money was going.

In their own brochure, the VSO says "70 percent of all donations were invested into the work and housing programs."

The numbers Kavanaugh found don't match the claims. Channel 2 obtained the VSO's recent federal tax filings.

In 2009, the VSO reported it collected $5.6 million nationally, but only spent around $380,000 on grants for veterans.

In 2010, the VSO collected close to $8.5 million, but spent even less on grants for veterans, about $278,000.

This caught the attention of CharityWatch, a watchdog group that gave the VSO an F rating. President Daniel Borochof spoke to Kavanaugh from Chicago.

"The big problem is that people's money is not going to help veterans, only to a very small degree, only 17 percent of their cash budget is actually going to programs to benefit veterans."

Jon Gravely manages Georgia's chapter of the VSO. He is not a veteran, but insists this program is changing lives.

"The work program lets them deal with the public. They're getting thanked for their service every day," Gravely said. "They're helping themselves, getting paid to do a job."

Gravely also invited Channel 2 to witness a day with the work program firsthand.

The day began with a visit with the Georgia Department of Labor. A spokesperson handed out informational material about job searches and career fairs.

After the meeting, the veterans loaded into vans and headed out to their assigned spot to solicit.

That's when Kavanaugh met veteran Marvin Calhoun. He said he was homeless when he met Gravely.

"I don't know quite where I'd be at right now," Calhoun said. He now lives in a Snellville <<house? apartment?>> owned by the VSO.

He and other veterans pay $150 per week to stay there. Calhoun said he has been soliciting donations for a year.

The VSO said more than 50 people went through the work program last year in Georgia. VSO could not provide numbers of their success stories. It could not say how many veterans have moved on to more stable full-time jobs.

VSO officials said they do feel other veterans have criticized them because of their hands-on approach of putting the homeless to work.

The group admits some of the people in the work program have never served in the military.

In light of scrutiny the VSO faces across the country, Walmart told Kavanaugh it will no longer allow the VSO workers to solicit outside the doors of its stores.