Article written by Noah Henson.
Edited by Thomas Goldstein and Naran Shettigar.
Austin’s homelessness problem is rampant and where the city’s efforts to alleviate the issue fall short, non-profit organizations often step in to pick up the slack.
One such organization, Austin Restoration Ministries (ARM), is well-known among many Austinites for their practice of panhandling at street intersections. Praised as a godsend to the homeless by some, and denounced as a scam by others, the ministry is ever-present throughout Austin.
But while they are visible, little is known about the inner workings of the organization. On the surface they seem to be an innocuous religious nonprofit, but there could be much more to the ministry than meets the eye.
Founded in 2006, ARM is a church-affiliated nonprofit with the stated mission of “reaching out to drug addicts, alcoholics and anyone that is lost and dying in sin throughout the City of Austin and its surrounding areas.”
The organization appears to implement this vision completely through donations from the public. In the 2018 fiscal year alone, they raised $664,067.
Representatives of the organization solicit donations from drivers at street intersections, much to the scrutiny of everyday Austinites.
Those who are panhandling out on the streets are often the ones who allegedly benefit from the ministry’s services.
In a 2009 article by the Austin Chronicle, it was reported that “Monday through Thursday…, [ARM solicitors] are required to give the first $75 they make to the “church” – any money they make beyond that belongs to them.
On Friday and Saturday the church’s take increases to $100.” This information directly contradicts ARM’s claim that their services are “free of charge,” and carries concerning ethical question–should a nonprofit dedicated to helping the homeless and drug addicts enlist its beneficiaries in a fundraising campaign in exchange for shelter?
Also mentioned in the 2009 article was a man named Azor Barnes. He along with two others, Lee and Sheila Price, acted as directors for the organization at the time.
However, Barnes appears to have since moved on, establishing another restoration ministry in Oklahoma City called “Oklahoma Saved By Grace Restoration Ministries.”
This ministry bears a striking resemblance to ARM from its flyers to its panhandling practices.
In Clay County, Florida, representatives of Saved By Grace were spotted, and 2018 story by KFOR covered the group’s illegal panhandling practices in the area.
Similarly to Saved by Grace, ARM has also been cited for violations of local panhandling ordinances, with solicitors receiving citations from local police.
In the 2009 Austin Chronicle report on the ministry, officers stated that “[they] constantly [dealt] with them […] Occasionally, [taking] solicitors to jail, when the fines associated with […] tickets [hadn’t] been paid.”
The other two directors of ARM, Lee and Sheila Price, remained with the organization since its founding and have continued to grow their operation.
In 2018, ARM claimed to house 413 people, a number that shows a drastic increase from the “42 men and 23 women” that Azor Barnes claimed to house in 2009. However, no addresses are listed for any housing units on ARM’s website. For comparison, Caritas of Austin, a non-profit organization with more resources and organization, was able to only house a slightly larger number of people––526.
Additionally, the Prices have assumed a number of “doing business as” (DBA) names in the years since ARM’s founding, allowing them to conduct business and open bank accounts under different names.
These filings are noteworthy because they all appear to be connected to the ministry in some way.
Many of these DBA names are reported to operate out of the same address as the ministry itself (10206 N-IH 35), while others are filed under the ministry’s old property (8025 N Lamar Boulevard).
The DBA’s all assume various church-themed names, including but not limited to Holy Ground Lawn Care, Disciple’s Touch Steam Cleaning, Nazareth Designs, ARM Restoration More For Less Thrity Store, and Strong-Arm Carpet Cleaning (these names are written verbatim).
All of these forms are available for public access on the Travis County Clerk’s website.
As of now, ARM Restoration More for Less Thrity Store’s DBA is the only one that has expired. Even more curious is that there is virtually no online presence for any of these businesses and little evidence to suggest that they actually operate.
The only trace of any of these businesses that Austin Youth Artists United Journalism (AYAUJ) was able to find was two reviews for Disciple’s Touch Steam Cleaning on Angie’s List.
Additionally, upon visiting the address listed for Holy Ground Lawn Care, AYAU was able to locate one of ARM’s group homes— a single-family dwelling in Georgian Acres, an area in north central Austin.
When asked about Holy Ground Lawn Care, the people allegedly affiliated with ARM’s operations at the property seemed apprehensive and did not answer.
If the Prices and ARM do operate under these assumed names, they do not do so visibly, raising the question: Why have all of these assumed names been established and how are they connected to the ministry?
Once again, a lack of information stops us from drawing any hard conclusions.
However, this informational void doesn’t deter people on the internet from drawing their own conclusions about the organization.
Public opinion about ARM is starkly divided online, likely owing to the organization’s lack of transparency.
This lack of information about the ministry often leads people to make claims and accusations that have no way of being debunked or verified.
A comment on a 2018 KVUE report covering the group claims that “they search for individuals who are down on their luck for profit,” a reference to ARM’s practice of employing those who receive their services to fundraise on the streets.
The comments also alleges that, “They put $ quotas on each person that stays there and take SSI benefits and their Snap cards,” a claim unverified by any other source. “You panhadle (sic) for the pastor and his wife… They live in luxury,” the commenter continues, referencing the Prices.
On the other hand, Pamela Starling, a past beneficiary of the nonprofit, writes on ARM’s Facebook page “I have now been clean and sober for 8 years and plan to continue to be sober and follow Jesus all the days of my life! This is what the Power Of God Can Do In your life! Also God our Lord gave me his strength, power, and his anointing to write a book called Spiritual Death to Spiritual Life that was released In November of 2018 and now I am on my second book! Nobody but King Jesus! Yes I am still a member of Austin Restoration Ministries!!!”
On greatnonprofits.org, one reviewer writes verbatim, “i was in this ministry…it is very cultish. you will work constantly for free and your daily provisions are not met…absolutley a religious scam,” while another claims “I called the number on the flyer and a women from Arm was there to pick me up with in 20 minuets.”
“Yes i did fund raise on the street corners for the ministry for 2 years,” the second reviewer admits, “But i learned a lot about myself and other people in the process! If ARM had not been around i would probably be dead right now.”
As mentioned previously, these claims have no way of being verified given the limited information at hand.
What can be addressed however, is the lack of transparency surrounding the ministry.
Transparency is a cornerstone of public trust, and until ARM establishes this trust, it will continue to appear as a shadowy organization that exploits its clientele.
Until they become more transparent about their operations, the legitimacy of Austin Restoration Ministries will continue to be ambiguous.
As homelessness continues to worsen in Austin, it is vital that the nonprofit organizations stepping up to address the issue be legitimate, ethical, and transparent about their operations.