City Puts the Drop on Clothing Boxes

Chicagoist/January 18, 2007

This time of year, many people are looking to weed the closet and clean out the garage to make room for the new pile of stuff they didn't really need acquired over the holidays. So, responding to an altruistic impulse, they decide to donate their old clothes, furniture, appliances, and toys. But that Salvation Army center with the nice workers who help unload the car is so far away. Hey there's a green collection box on the corner, just chuck your unwanted stuff in there.

But if you watch those street corner collection boxes closely, you'll notice that many of them quickly overfill, spilling their contents into a soggy mess on the surrounding pavement, or get ransacked by enterprising scavengers who leave a trail of unwanted sweaters and T-shirts. Sometimes the boxes block alleyways or sidewalks, without the permission of the adjacent business owners. So the City Council proposed a crackdown on clothing collection boxes yesterday.

The measure, pushed by Ald. Eugene Schulter (47th), was approved unanimously by the Buildings Committee. It requires charities to obtain a $200 permit every two years for each box, keep the boxes in good condition, and post a clear collection schedule. Violators could be fined up to $1000.

This is fine by the Salvation Army, one of the legitimate charities that uses collection boxes. We're certain Schulter had them in mind when he said, ""We do have fine organizations that do a good job on their own making sure ... contents are removed in a timely fashion where we don't have overflowing conditions." Then he said, "But, we do have organizations that could care less." That organization would be the GAIA-Movement USA, which has spawned a whopping number of boxes (550) throughout the city (compared to Sal Army's 40), especially in affluent neighborhoods. As anyone who has one of their green boxes in their neighborhood can attest, they're often packed to the brim, the area around them littered with soggy clothes and cardboard boxes. This might be a sign of a successful clothing drive, but the Tribune pointed out in a 2004 investigation that GAIA has a less-than-stellar reputation. The group finances a Danish organization called Tvind, whom former members and European authorities have called a cult. Tvind's leaders have also been indicted for embezzlement, tax evasion, and money laundering in Denmark and Belgium. The group claims to use its clothes collection business to finance environmental projects, but tax filings show that only four percent of its revenues were donated to charity, and the Tribune found that even that money is difficult to trace to actual projects.

So if you feel that impulse to give to charity, follow it all the way and actually go to the Salvation Army, Goodwill, or White Elephant store yourself. You'll get a receipt and some peace of mind.

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