New Beginnings founder and CEO Tom Atchison blasts Tampa Bay Times stories

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Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner’s request for a federal probe into allegations that a Tampa homeless shelter has been exploiting workers was met with a furious denunciation today by the shelter’s CEO, Tom Atchison, at the Board of County Commissioners meeting this morning.

“We need to stop this nonsense,” he said, referring to the series of stories originally reported on this week by the Tampa Bay Times‘ Will Hobson. They allege that Atchison has been exploiting residents staying in his residences by farming them out as unpaid labor, including working concessions at Tampa Bay Rays, Lightning, and Bucs games, the Daytona 500 and the Florida State Fair. The stories have detailed how workers who put in a day of work are unaware of how much they are being paid for their labor since their paychecks go straight to Atchison and the shelter. Atchison has called the labor “work therapy,” but advocates for the homeless and labor lawyers say it is exploitative, calling it “indentured servitude.”

“It’s just amazing to me that all this is in the press,” Atchison said disgustedly, holding copies of the Times and Tampa Tribune in his hand while addressing commissioners. “Everything in that is a total lie.”

In addition to requesting that the feds intervene, Beckner has also asked the county administration’s office to investigate New Beginnings. The shelter had been hoping to receive a housing contract with the county operate a  75-bed Community Housing Solutions Center, but county officials rejected the group, saying that New Beginnings audits were faulty. The Times also reported that according to a former residents and staff, Atkinson also takes residents’ Social Security checks and food stamps, even if they amount to more than residents owe in program costs (He has denied that in today’s Tribune).

“If I was reading this article and didn’t know me, I’d be ready to want to do something about me, too,” Atchison confessed. He told commissioners to “listen the credible people, not some people that we kicked out of the program, that have gone to the press.” He then said that he had received a text from a former member of the Christian-based homeless program who was going to speak to the Times, quoting him as saying, “They’re paying me $500 for my story.” He said that unnamed former member said that if Atchison paid him instead, he’d keep his mouth shut to the press. Among those “credible people” he said the board should hear from included Ybor City businessman Joe Capitano, Tampa Assistant Police Chief John Bennett, and Tampa City Councilwoman Lisa Montelione.

In a statement emailed to this reporter, Jennifer Orsi, Times Managing Editor, responded that Atchison’s comment was inaccurate. “The  Tampa Bay Times does not pay interview subjects for their stories, ever. Neither reporter Will Hobson nor any Times employee offered money for an interview for the New Beginnings story. This allegation is completely false.”

He was followed at the dais by a number of current or former New Beginnings members, all of whom spoke powerfully about their belief in Atchison and how he had helped them in their lives, several of them who had been on the street before being connected to New Beginnings. A few of them were questioned by Commissioner Victor Crist about the allegations in the Times, asking if they or anyone they new at New Beginnings had worked selling concessions. None said they had.

The last speaker testifying for Atchison’s character was Harrison Soberanis, who discussed how he had been making $120,000 annually working in homeless services in Los Angeles, but gave that up recently to relocate to Florida with his wife and 14-year-old son to be closer to family in Belize.  Then he became homeless, and said after short stints at the Salvation Army and Metropolitan Ministries, he was told to look up Atchison for help. He says since then he become the chief grant writer with New Beginnings.  “I may not be the best speaker, but with a pen and with my brain I can write any grant,” he said.

Later in the morning the board approved the housing center contract that New Beginnings had applied for. The Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office, also known as DACCO, was awarded the bid. They will operate a 75-bed facility to move people from homelessness to housing.

Commissioner Crist asked County Administrator Mike Merrill if the recent revelations about New Beginnings influenced the county in any way in not giving that contract to New Beginnings. Merrill said they had not. “Those are allegations,” he replied. “They haven’t been proven. They’re not factual. This is based on their financial capability to conduct this contract,” which county staff had earlier ruled that New Beginnings was not.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.