Howard Fineman on donations to the homeless and his post-NYC home

I get all kinds of questions when I talk about my clothing. I’ve spent my entire life in business providing free clothing, food and shelter to the homeless. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but it’s always been a pretty shady part of my life: some free clothes.

If I was to provide the truth here, of my many charitable expenditures, one would be the $600,000 per year I got for doing good work through my nonprofit, Housing Works. Many people wonder how I could spend that much money.

The explanation: from 2000 to 2014, the government paid me $60,000 in rent. I used this money to run my catering business that produced every slice of ice cream and bowl of ice cream that heath activists ate for free. I also used the rent money to buy restaurant supplies, granite countertops, wood floors, tape and newspapers.

I spent $2 million in rent for the same five years working for myself. This is a fact that doesn’t make the headlines because it is too hard to believe.

When I announced the launch of Housing Works in 1997, I pointed out that only three people had AIDS by that time, and that there were 13,000 people in food stamp households. Today, there are 6.4 million people on food stamps, most of whom are doing the same work that I did.

This is a hard truth that must not go away and we must address it as a country.

People ask me all the time how much I get for “selling out” my former job for Housing Works. What people don’t realize is that I go back every four or five years and I beg people to donate to Homeless Outreach. My charity gives out coats and blankets, pet food and basic medical supplies. I am clear it is a more sustainable form of compensation.

Another interesting question I get from people is why I would sell my townhouse in Mill Basin and buy a smaller, two-bedroom condo in Crestview. I ask the same question.

How do you walk away from $5 million in earnings in order to buy a two-bedroom apartment, as a four-year resident in that house? Why am I not making the money that I could have over the last 18 years, and why would I care about that money?

If I wasn’t out providing hundreds of thousands of dollars of free clothing and shelter every year, I could probably pay myself to come buy a condo in Queens. The only thing we’re competing against is real estate — it’s just easier to own a condo.

I’m not surprised that some might question my judgment on my living situation: my family, my spouse and I spent seven years of each year in the homeless shelter. We have raised four kids, five after we’d move out of the shelter.

The circumstances that allowed us to get to this point are complicated and why the city did not sell the townhouse to us. We made decisions over the years, like being too eager to just move into the shelter because we didn’t have a home of our own. Another reason that my family never moved out, was because my wife’s parents had paid the rent for the attic for 11 years. We didn’t even need their rent money when we needed it.

So after I leave Housing Works, I return to buying a townhouse with my wife. We love that townhouse and everything in it. We’re going to have a great time living in that home.

This blog post is part of a series about donations in the business of charity. NY Times staff writer Alana Semuels is executive editor of the Times’ The Crib section.

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