13 INVESTIGATES: Donation Bin Battle - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Donation Bin Battle

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BIRMINGHAM, AL -

The battle for the bins begins here.

Alabama's 13 took our cameras to the Salvation Army Family Store & Donation Center in Homewood.

Captain Dan Matthews makes it clear: the Army has good reason to fight. "All the funds that our thrift stores here in Birmingham generate go to our Adult Rehabilitation Center," Captain Matthews told us. The ARC helps men recovering from addiction. "They have classes - life skill classes, Bible classes, chapel. They do work therapy. We believe it's the best program in Birmingham."

Cars and trucks steadily pull around to the back of the store. That's where people bring donations to the Salvation Army. We spotted one woman unloading her SUV. She pulls out a bag of clothes, a lampshade and a blanket. "If I can't use it, let someone else use it," Lisa Miller told Alabama's 13.

Folks like Miller are important to the mission of the Salvation Army. The donated goods provide the ammunition the non-profit needs to do good. Miller makes it a priority to give to charity. "It certainly does make me feel better that I'm doing something good for someone else."

"We appreciate people's donations," security manager Charlie White said. "They trust the Salvation Army."

There's nothing trustworthy about the thieves stealing from the Salvation Army's donation bin behind the store. We asked White, "Is it going too far to say people are stealing those donations?" Miller didn't miss a beat: "They're stealing them."

The donation center is open and staffed Monday through Saturday. Sunday is the problem day. That's when people take whatever they want from the donation area.

"The ones that bother us are the ones that will actually back up with a pickup truck or a van and take everything we have," White explained. "I mean they'll literally load up TV sets, couches, tables, chairs, and take them."

The Salvation Army has gone to great lengths to stop the thievery. The Salvation Army told Alabama's 13 police required the charity to make it clear stealing is wrong. A sign literally spells it out: "Stealing donated property is a crime." The non-profit tells us it also had to paint yellow stripes around the donation area before police would take action.

The problem's not just in Homewood.

The Salvation Army is seeing stealing at its store in Hoover and donation site in Trussville.

"As a matter of fact, in Trussville, they've got warrants out now for the arrest of two individuals that were taking from our site," White said. "We're not looking to arrest people or put people in jail. We just want them to stop taking the items because it's the lifeblood of our organization."

There's another front in this war of bin battles: non-profit charities versus profit-making businesses. Alabama's 13 found one of 145 bins USAgain has placed in Alabama just since last Spring. The bin sits in front of Nina's Cleaners in Homewood.

"He didn't really explain to me a lot," Parker Smith told us. Smith owns the dry cleaning company. "I know he was from Atlanta. He just said they'd place the box here and we'd get a few dollars every month depending on how much clothes was dropped off."

Smith's business actively helps local charities. That's important to him. Just one example -- giving unclaimed dry cleaning to The Foundry.

We asked why Smith decided to allow the USAgain box on his property: "How did you think you'd be helping with this box?" "To be honest with you," Smith explained. "we were kind of just - it was kind like a 'whatever' situation. He asked us and we just agreed to it. He said it would be a few dollars extra. And we didn't think it would be in the way. So, kind of a 'why not?'."

Andrew Jenkins, the executive director for The Village, has an answer to that question.

"If you're giving your goods or your clothes to a for-profit, you're not really making a donation to something that is helping other people other than helping a business person fatten their wallet," Jenkins said. He added, "It's a legitimate way of doing business." Business is the key word according to him. He calls USAgain a valid business.

The Village and its non-profit drug recovery ministry sells donated items at a new charity thrift store it just opened in Midfield.

What's the difference in the two donation bins set up by The Village and USAgain?

The Village is a non-profit charity.

USAgain is not a charity. It's a for-profit business.

Drop your donations into The Village's bin, and the items stay here at home helping the mission of the ministry at The Village.

Drop clothing and shoes into a USAgain bin and the company sells them to middle-men brokers. Much of the 16 million pounds of items USAgain collects each year goes around the world where other companies sell it all again.

So, how much money does USAgain make off the stuff people donate in its green and white bins? When we asked USAgain spokesman Scott Burnham, he politely chuckled and told us, 'We don't release any of our financials."

Andrew Jenkins wants people to stop and think where their donations wind up. "Drop it somewhere where it's not going to just make somebody wealthy - where it's actually going to go back to the equity of the entire community by helping get people back on their feet," Jenkins said.

Across the country, again and again, bin-based for-profit companies have been banned or regulated. Some of those communities have cited how for-profit companies hurt charities. For example, Oakland California cracked down on donation bins finding in part "the financial impact is also being felt by local non-profit organizations"

The Better Business Bureau has warned donors: despite what some people may think USAgain is not a charitable organization.

USAgain tells Alabama's 13 the company has made an effort to point out its profit motive. We saw it on the side of the bin at Nina's Cleaners. The bin reads "USAgain is a for-profit clothes collection company." and "donated items are not tax deductible."

The company tells Alabama's 13, USAgain's "mission is to keep clothing and shoes out of landfills."

What does the donation bin battle mean for you? Charity Watch has this advice: think about who's getting your donations. On average, people donate $40 worth of household items each year. Charity Watch says most folks don't evaluate the recipient the same as they would if they were handing over cash.

Local charities could be the ones paying the price.

Andrew Jenkins summed it up: "Just look at any ministry that's going to build the lives of people, not just build the pocketbook of a person."

Spokesman Scott Burnham told Alabama's 13 it supports "all collecting efforts whether it's a charity, a church or us."

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