Flatiron Locals Seek Crackdown on Sidewalk Charities



Madison Square Park in the Flatiron District. Photo by Nora Zaim-Sassi

Comet Blecha no longer enjoys the leisurely strolls she takes with her dog in Madison Square Park or around her Flatiron neighborhood. Instead, she picks up the pace to avoid the surge of people soliciting for charities on sidewalks. 

“One charity for dogs always says to me, ‘You’re a dog lover, you should donate since you have a dog,’” said Blecha. “But just because I have a dog doesn’t mean I’m going to give money, and I don’t know if they’re legitimate or not. This feels like Times Square — people live here and there are a lot of kids and families being harassed during their walks or lunch breaks.”

With the resurgence of tourism in Midtown, specifically in the Flatiron District, more charities have positioned themselves on sidewalks near densely-populated tourist attractions, with some organizations operating without legal permits. The solicitation for money can be so aggressive that tourists, employees and residents in the area can no longer walk down the block without at least one organization approaching them. The harassment has gotten so bad, that residents have filed complaints with Community Board 5, seeking action from charity watchdogs.

And Blecha is not alone. Steven Estevez, who works at Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, said he worries that the more aggressive charity workers will turn away customers or prevent them from enjoying their meals because the restaurant only has outdoor seating.

“They’ll usually approach me and other people saying, ‘Excuse me, do you have an interest in saving children with cancer,’” said Estevez. “Other times, they’ll step right in front of me so I have to stop.”

Noel Slater, a Flatiron resident who filed a complaint with the community board in September, noticed an uptick in charities on sidewalks when tourists returned amid the pandemic recovery.

“I’ll walk to a different street because I see them,” said Slater. “They’ll even approach kids, so parents are forced to stop and acknowledge them.” 

In his complaint, Slater said he suspected some charities weren’t operating legitimately. He was right.

On a rainy Thursday afternoon, a group of people wearing the same t-shirts split up into pairs to solicit money from pedestrians during a break in the weather. 

One of the charity workers raising money for an environmental organization requested that her name and organization be withheld in fear of legal ramifications. “We were pretty successful today,” she said. “We’re actually not allowed to raise money here.” 

Charities and organizations that raise money are legally required to register with the Charities Bureau of New York, an agency in the attorney general’s office that monitors the activity of charities and foundations throughout the state. Organizations soliciting inside parks must apply for a permit through the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Charitable solicitations are deemed free speech, as long as they are not aggressive and do not obstruct park activities, said Izzy Verdera, a Parks Department press officer, in an email. Unlawful solicitation within parks is a misdemeanor that can lead to a maximum fine of $1000 or imprisonment for up to 20 days, according to the Parks Department regulations.

Isaiah Cameron, who works for the Madison Square Park Conservancy, cleans the park daily and oversees its activities. But he often performs another task: forcing charity groups without permits to leave the park. 

“I pick and choose my battles,” said Cameron. “I’m here at six in the morning and enforce what I need to, but sometimes I have to be extra careful when I approach them because they can get aggressive.”

Tolu Adepeju, is a paid fundraiser for Amnesty International. On a tourist-dense day, he stood on West 23rd Street and Broadway, from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., asking for donations.

“We stand outside of Madison Square Park because we don’t have a permit to work inside,” said Adepeju. 

The Better Business Bureau, known as the BBB, lists businesses and charities throughout the country and allows people to file complaints against companies and report scams. With 760 charities based in the metro New York area, the BBB helps people identify charity frauds, said Claire Rosenzweig, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau. 

“Anybody can look up what we say about a charity,” said Rosenzweig. There are 20 standards that the BBB lists as criteria for charities. “If they meet those standards we will note them as an accredited charity, so a consumer can find out all about the charity that’s requesting that they donate,” she said.

Walking near the Harry Potter store in the Flatiron District, Jan Fadden, a tourist from California, said she is careful to donate to charities on the spot. 

“I feel like they could sense that I am a tourist,” said Fadden, after being approached by Amnesty International workers. “Plus, I am a woman walking alone so it was probably easy for them to corner me and make me stop.”