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Charity disparity

Planet Aid's bins aren't hard to find. Except in the tony quarters of town.

By Ric Kahn
Globe Staff / November 2, 2008
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Trash bags, tires, tables, couches, cribs. Hyde Park resident Rita Walsh had seen the yellow Planet Aid collection box at the foot of her Fairmount Hill neighborhood become a dumping ground for all that swill and more, despite solicitations on the bin seeking only clothes and shoes.

Like the adult walker and potty chair she eyed there one Sunday morning on her way to church. "I don't want to tell you what I said to myself," says Walsh, a semi-retired Boston public schools teacher.

After being deluged with complaints about the buildup of illegally tossed dross around that and other Planet Aid charity bins in his district, says City Councilor Rob Consalvo, he filed a tidiness ordinance with $100 penalties for owners of unkempt boxes. The measure passed resoundingly on Wednesday.

No wonder his phone has been ringing off the hook. Thirty percent of Planet Aid's Boston box locations are in Roslindale and Hyde Park, areas Consalvo represents. Furthermore, although there are no restrictions on which neighborhoods can hold them, only three Planet Aid sites can be found in Hub areas that would seem to have the most to bestow - the top half of the city's income brackets. Two are in West Roxbury, one in Jamaica Plain. That leaves 87 percent of the sites in Boston's less wealthy areas.

Critics say that places an unfair burden on people there.

"Why should someone plunk a box there and cause it to look like a blighted area?" says Walsh, who supports the bins as long as they are tended to.

Planet Aid officials say they are quick to haul away junk - at the group's expense - before it becomes a stain on the neighborhood.

By contrast, the American Red Cross has only seven clothing collection bin spots in the city, and three of them are in the city's richer zones: one in the Back Bay, another in West Roxbury, and a third in Jamaica Plain.

Planet Aid is a national nonprofit group headquartered in Massachusetts whose stock-in-trade is the rag trade. The organization raises millions of dollars a year by collecting used clothing, selling it off, and using proceeds to fund development programs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that range from fighting poverty to stemming the spread of AIDS.

In the super-competitive world of used-clothing collection, Planet Aid says it prides itself on product placement, hiring locals to scout high-impact areas. A spokesman for Planet Aid says the group has tried to place boxes in high-end areas, but has found those locations too congested and without the necessary open space offered by the likes of gas stations, shopping centers, and mini-marts.

"Planet Aid puts their bins where people go," says Doug Bailey, the group's spokesman. "We look for places that are high-traffic areas with free, ample parking."

Even as open stretches in the South End and shopping plazas in Charlestown and on Beacon Hill remain free of Planet Aid bins, five of the group's receptacles are within 1.5 miles of each other in a stretch of Dorchester and Roxbury.

Two of them are on a vacant lot across from apartment buildings on a narrow residential portion of Morse Street that has cars parked on both sides. Another is wedged against a church storefront, and blocking the public sidewalk, on Harold Street. On Tuesday, the city Inspectional Services Department's Code Enforcement Police cited the group for occupying city property without a permit, according to chief Michael Mackan, a violation that carries a $50 fine. Planet Aid officials say they will move it.

"Regardless of income, you'd think they'd be everywhere. Who has more disposable clothing?" says Marvin Martin, director of the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition, a neighborhood revitalization group in Dorchester, of the collection bins. "The poor give more, but other folks have more to give."

Indeed, studies like 2000's landmark Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey show that lower-income people are generous with their donations. While rich folks give more in absolute dollars, the less wealthy donate a higher percentage of their family income, according to data from the survey provided by the Saguaro Seminar of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The survey estimated that those making $20,000 or less a year gave between 3.2 and 4.8 percent of their income compared with only 2.4 to 2.9 percent from those in the $100,000 or more range.

Arthur Brooks, author of the book, "Who Really Cares," says there's a bedrock reason behind the working poor's benevolence. "Faith," says Brooks, the incoming president of the American Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank.

Because they may be one paycheck away from poverty, they are apt to whisper, "There but for the grace of God go I." They take to heart the golden rule, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

In Boston, the affluent are spared subliminal guilt-trips to give that are engendered by Planet Aid's yellow boxes."People in high-class neighborhoods don't want to be confronted with the reality of inequality," says Jim Stewart, an antipoverty activist who directs the First Church Shelter in Cambridge.

Stewart says poor people are hit with a double whammy when Planet Aid comes to town: its boxes often end up in their neighborhoods at utilitarian strip malls, which can become even uglier with spillover. "Attempts to relieve the poor end up piled on their backs because they have unattractive areas where these receptacles can be more easily located," says Stewart.

But Bailey says it is not a conscious - or conscience - decision to avoid the more monied locales, only a logistical one. He says Planet Aid has bins in swanky suburbs across the state and nation. "It's not a wealthy versus less wealthy issue," says Bailey, president of DBMediaStrategies. "We'd love to put one in the Back Bay. People would have to double-park to unload their cars, and we can't have that."

In response to questions from City Weekly, Planet Aid officials now say they'll pay $200 to anyone who can find a suitable spot for a collection box in the upscale part of town.

Bailey says Planet Aid asks Boston property owners to voluntarily allow the bins on their land. At the Hyde Park Pharmacy on River Street, 79-year-old owner Richard Ferzoco has hosted a Planet Aid box since 1999, and says the group is diligent about cleaning any debris. His daughter, store manager Patty Hickey, says the business doesn't get anything out of the deal but good will - and good feelings.

"If we can help in any small way, you feel better about it," says Hickey, 41.

There are now two Planet Aid bins on Ferzoco's parking lot across from his store, plus a recently added American Red Cross box. Last week, one of the Planet Aid bins was overstuffed with clothes. So far this year, the group has collected 1,117,822 pounds of clothing from its Boston bins, according to Planet Aid, and 14,571,740 pounds statewide. In 2007, the group says it took in about 100 million pounds of clothes from 12,000 boxes nationwide.

Despite the huge haul, some charity watchdogs have criticized Planet Aid, saying the group does not use enough of the money to help the needy. The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance report issued in January said Planet Aid spent only 28 percent of its total $19.4 million 2006 expenses on program activities - well below the bureau's preferred rate of 65 percent.

But Bailey says Planet Aid would easily pass muster, except that the Better Business Bureau and others count money it spends on collecting and recycling clothing as fund-raising expenses rather than program expenses. Planet Aid says this devalues the environmental gains of the enterprise.

"We relieve municipal landfills of the burden of old clothing," says Bailey. "We get no credit for that."

Bailey also discounted disparaging media reports, including a 2002 story in The Boston Globe, that linked some Planet Aid figures to a group accused of being a nonreligious cult. Naysayers, he says, mistook a communal culture for something more nefarious. "It's just a lifestyle they chose," Bailey says.

Consalvo, the city councilor, says his concerns are more concrete than cosmic: that suburban scofflaws may be tossing garbage and furniture at Planet Aid bins to avoid paying trash fees; that scavengers have been leaving a mess as they rummage through bags of clothing left outside Planet Aid boxes; that such overflow can invite more serious offenses by giving the impression that a neighborhood doesn't care. Several times in the past six months, Consalvo says, he's had a city truck cart away scrap left at a Planet Aid site - at taxpayers' expense.

"Because my district is overburdened with these problems," Consalvo says, "it does cry out for further regulation that will hold these owners accountable."

Pending the mayor's signature, Consalvo's ordinance would require charity bin organizations like Planet Aid and the American Red Cross to register with the city, giving officials a better handle on exactly how many boxes there are, their precise locations, and whom to call if trouble hits. The groups would have to keep the bins neat or face a $100 fine.

In Hyde Park, Planet Aid last month removed the collection bin from the edge of Rita Walsh's Fairmount Hill neighborhood following complaints that it attracted detritus. But residents say culprits had gotten so used to employing it as a dumping place that some still heaped slop there even after the yellow box was gone.

Ric Kahn can be reached at rkahn@globe.com.

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