Special Report: Clothing Donation Bins - Who Really Gets The Items?

By: Caroline Vandergriff Email
By: Caroline Vandergriff Email

Clothing donation bins seem to be popping up everywhere in Mid-Michigan - in parking lots and next to businesses. You may have even dropped off some of your used clothes and shoes in one of the brightly-colored bins, but where are your donations actually going?

Many Lansing residents are fed up with the blight the bins cause, and want the city to crack down on this growing problem.

"You just drive around - you go down MLK, Cedar, Jolly, and you will spot them like no other," said Ron Leix, president of the Old Everett Neighborhood Association. "It seems like you can't throw a rock without hitting a donation box in the City of Lansing."

Ever since Leix first noticed the bins about a year ago, he's been watching piles of trash collect around them. He's not the only one fed up with the issue.

"Mattresses, trash, we've had people drop tires off. Basically, they just use it as a junk yard," said Ryan Oshesky, who works at DA Autostop on North Grand River Avenue.

A donation bin has sat in front of the business for several years, even before DA Autostop moved into the building. Judith Perkins' house is on the other side of the bin, which is operated by the Childhood Disease Research Foundation.

"There's been broken glass, baby stuff, children's toys, furniture, toilets. All of the kinds of things you have in your house you might call junk that nobody wants - it's sitting here," Perkins explained. "I want my neighborhood to look nice and my neighborhood doesn't look nice. It looks like a trash heap with this thing here."

Kent Deluxe Cleaners at S. Washington and Dunlap agreed to host a donation bin for the Institute for International Cooperation and Development. Deanna Servis, a manager at Kent's, says they haven't had any problems with the box until last week, when someone dumped dozens of trash bags around it.

"The boxes are here to help people, not to be people's trash cans." said Servis.

But Ron Leix began to question how much of the donations actually went to helping people people in need.

"Where is this stuff going?" Leix asked. "Are the donations going locally? Is it for profit, non-profit?"

News 10 decided to investigate. These bins usually have "donation" written on them, and they carry the brand of some type of charity. However, not all of these organizations give your donations to a good cause. Some are just in the business to make money.

The Michigan Attorney General's offices warns that just because a company puts out a donation bin, doesn't mean it's for a charity. The bins marked for Community Patriots are run by a business that collects the donated clothes and shoes to re-sell for a profit. Community Patriots says it contributes some of what it makes to charities, but it is not a non-profit organization.

Other bins collect items for the Childhood Disease Research Foundation, an operating arm of the Optimal Medical Foundation. It is a registered non-profit based in California that "focuses its efforts on the health of families."

Another box asking for clothes and shoes is simply labeled for The Hope. The logo design and name make it seem like it could be a charity, but it is not registered as one with the Attorney General's office or with the Better Business Bureau. News 10 called the number on the box multiple times, but no one ever answered or returned our messages.

"I don't know if they're trying to deceive people on purpose or not," said Major Alan Hellstrom, the Salvation Army's capital area coordinator. "But I'm sure those businesses and non-profits are worthwhile. You just have to know who you're giving to. The Salvation Army is out there as well, and there's a lot of choices, so we encourage people to do their homework."

Even with the legitimate, non-profit donation boxes, your donations are typically not staying local. There are so many Mid-Michigan organizations, like the Salvation Army and Volunteers of America Michigan, that accept donations and give them to people in need in this community, which is something people should consider before dropping off donations at the most convenient box.

The Institute for International Cooperation and Development is a non-profit located in Michigan, and operates donation bins across the state. The organization's clothes collection manager says they sell the clothes they collect and then use that money to train their international volunteers. She also says they've seen more and more donation bins pop up this year, and the competition is fierce.

"It seems like it's an epidemic," Leix said. "Where do we stop? Where do we draw the line? What we're looking for is just a little regulation, just to ensure that we don't have a ton of donation boxes."

Lansing City Council member Carol Wood is in talks with the City Attorney's office about ways to better control the bin business.

"A number of communities have adopted ordinances that require a permitting process," Wood said. "So there's someone to get in touch with when the trash shows up."

Part of the problem is that some of these bins are being put in the parking lots of abandoned buildings, or without the permission of the property owner, and no one seems to be taking responsibility for them.

One business owner we talked to with a donation box in his front parking lot, says he's called multiple times to get the bin removed, but the organization hasn't responded.

"If they've called and asked them to be picked up and it's not, I'd have it hauled away if they don't want it there," said Wood. "As long as they've made the proper notification to the phone numbers on the boxes. This is something on your private property, so then you become responsible."

Wood encourages people to call the city with complaints. She says until they know the scope of the problem, they won't know whether or not putting an ordinance in effect will actually do something.

Meantime, the fed-up residents have a simple message for their neighbors: "Common sense would tell you, if it's [trash] please just throw it away," Servis said. "Don't put it in the box."


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