I was stretched out on the divan yesterday watching a baseball game when the doorbell rang. I trudged to the door to find a middle-aged black woman seeking a donation to something called United House Foundation. She was well-spoken and nicely dressed yet a bit too formally for such hot weather. I later learned her name or alias was “B. Bowes.”
Ms. Bowes was the latest in a long line of bell-ringers who come to my door in central Phoenix. There must be two or three a month, not counting neighbors or others I know. Most are legit but some are not. While I am more reclusive than not, I usually make a concerted effort to confront whoever or whatever stands on my little front porch.
Probably my favorite is the Mexican woman who has come irregularly to the door for several years selling homemade green chili or beef tamales from a metal container. She rings the bell, then steps back onto the sidewalk about 10 feet, in courtesy I think. She speaks little English, and it is a chance for me to use my limited Spanish.
The conversation is always the same. “Buenas dias,” I say or if it’s dark, “buenas noches,” and she replies in kind. Then I say “Seis,” meaning I’ll take six. “Cuanto?” I ask for the price. “Ocho,” or $8, comes the reply. “Gracias,” she says on leaving.
I also don’t mind dealing with the political candidates who visit. They come either with petitions or to introduce themselves and to leave information, aka propaganda. I admire the candidates who do their own bell-ringing. It is America politics at its finest.
Then there are those who want to do odd jobs for pay. Some ask to paint the house number on the curb or to trim deadwood from trees. One man in his 40s comes once or twice a year to ask for yard work. He has a mental disability and one hand is shriveled up. I usually pay him $5 to pull weeds, a job he does poorly. But maybe I am giving him a sense of self-worth, that he is working for his money and is not a beggar.
The worst are the teen-age kids that come with their cardboard boxes of candy, or magazine subscriptions, telling me that buying this stuff will keep them “off the street,” away from a life of crime. I never buy, thinking it is a scam run by some hustling adult around the corner. They normally leave in a huff. One even shouted back at me what a horrible person I was.
Then there are the several men and women who have arrived late at night practically demanding money. I look out through the door’s peep-hole and listen. They need cash for bus fare or for gas at the nearby Circle K. I always say, no, to them as well.
Which gets me back to Ms. Bowes.
She tells me she is taking “donations” for the United House Foundation. The organization, she tells me, attempts to take care of battered, sexually-assaulted women like herself, giving them a place to stay away from the ogres in their lives. Like other donation seekers she has a clipboard filled with what she claims are official documents. Some cash is exposed to imply others are giving to the cause. She has caught me at a weak moment, and I give her five, one-dollar bills so I can hurry back to the TV set. Bowes gives me a receipt, though I told her to forget it.
Later, irked with myself for being such an easy target, I go to the Internet to do a little research. I look for the first time at the receipt Bowes has left with me. It says “United House Foundation, P.O. Box 239, Phoenix, Arizona, 85001, Federal Tax 94-1585260.” She signed a name as agent, “B. Bowes,” and listed her ID number 5019, along with what I assume is the number of the donation, 9306. That she has written over the last number, replacing a “5” with a “6” makes me want to believe her, that I can pat myself on the back for doing a good deed. A true Boy Scout.
While I did not find “United House Foundation” on a brief Google search, I did learn that the tax ID number belonged to “United States Mission,” a non-profit that gets much of its funding via door-to-door. It’s stated mission: “. . . to provide our residents with a long-term clean and sober home with quality meals and a self-help work program that provides each person with the opportunity of turning their lives around.”
Well, I thought, United House Foundation may be legitimate after all. Maybe it’s a wing of United States Mission. So I gave a call to the Mission’s local office and talked with the administrator, Patricia Martin.
Martin said she had never heard of “United House Foundation” and, anyway, all her solicitors were males, all working right now in the suburb of Ahwatukee far to the south from my house. “We haven’t had a woman working for us in over a year,” she said. Obviously I had let myself become a victim of a scam. I also received some advice.
“Make sure they show you a 501-c-3 with the current year,” Martin said. That is an IRS document for non-profits. “If it says 2010, or any other year other than 2011, something’s probably wrong,”
She also warned a former solicitor, a Dale Starling, had a stolen book of the Mission’s and should not receive donations representing her organization. It’s complicated, these donations to worthy causes.
For me it was too late. Impatient, I had done the wrong thing.
Still, I will continue to answer the doorbell and try to confront whatever faces me out there. But more wisely the next time, I hope. While I hate being a sap, I hate more the idea of hiding behind the door. To me, that’s a coward’s way out.
One thing for sure. If in doubt next time, I’ll give $2 rather than five.