The United Homeless Organization — the non-profit group which, since
1993, has been setting up tables on street corners throughout the city
and soliciting money with those ubiquitous plastic UHO water jugs — is a fraud, according to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo is suing the group, as well as its founder and president
Stephen Riley and its director Myra Walker for duping the public into
believing they were donating money to homeless individuals and to
shelters and food pantries when they were in fact pocketing it for
According to Cuomo’s office, this was a perfect scheme in which everyone
profited — though Riley and Walker profited the most (we’ll update you
when we know exact amounts). The scheme worked like this:
the organization, who are allegedly homeless themselves, would pay Riley
and Walker a fixed daily fee for the right to use the tables, jugs,
aprons, and other paraphernalia that had the UHO logo on it. That part
isn’t illegal — and it’s been well known since Tom Topousis first reported
it in the New York Post in 2001. (At the
time, the employees paid the organization $15 dollars for a five-hour
table shift, and were allowed to pocket 80 percent of the donations).
But the organization used false advertising — promising the money was
going to shelters and food pantries and other organizations that serve
the homeless. The United Homeless Organization does not actually operate homeless shelters or food pantries, and has no contracts with them.
Walker and Riley (who was also homeless at one time, before he decided
to turn panhandling into a non-profit venture) allegedly used the fees
collected from workers for their own living and travel expenses, while
claiming in annual reports to the Attorney General’s office that they
received no income from UHO. The organization did not have a board of
directors or another body that would provide financial oversight.
Every year the ringleaders put about $100,000 into the bank account for UHO, but that doesn’t include money they might have skimmed off the top
Similar questions were being raised about the organization as far back
as 2002, when then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer told reporters he was
reviewing the organization’s records.