The Giving Tree, a problem-plagued Tucson charity for the homeless, is shutting down.
The 14-year-old nonprofit tried to rebuild after a 2009 Arizona Daily Star investigation found that it served expired and potentially unsafe food to needy kids, charged clients hundreds of dollars a month to live in overcrowded rental homes and at least twice made a public display of giving kids gifts at holiday parties, only to take them back later.
The revelations led to the loss of most of The Giving Tree's financial support and preceded the retirement and departure of longtime director Libby Wright.
A new board tried to start over, but in its revamped form the charity lost so much money that two of its homes are headed for foreclosure. The charity has also been sued for nonpayment of rent at one of its thrift stores and the staff was locked out of its headquarters last week.
The three-member board voted to cease operating the charity this month after unsuccessfully trying to get another nonprofit organization to take it over, said Rodney Williams, the nonprofit's volunteer director. The Giving Tree served its last outdoor meal to about 40 people last Sunday.
"We haven't been able to pay anyone. That's why we're closing," Williams said in an interview last week. "This place is a nightmare that doesn't end."
"It was an acceptance of circumstances," board chairman Joel Lohr said. "We tried very, very hard."
A planned interview with the Arizona Daily Star had to be moved early Tuesday morning after The Giving Tree was locked out of its main office on North Swan Road for not paying rent.
The Giving Tree once housed up to 120 people at a time in numerous houses and was known for serving regular outdoor weekend and holiday meals to those in need on a dirt lot near East 22nd Street between South Columbus Boulevard and South Swan Road.
The charity now houses just four people and is working to help them find other places to live, said Williams, who took over leadership of The Giving Tree in February 2011 after Wright announced her retirement.
Wright is still in Tucson, and Williams says she has resumed charity work. She would not comment when reached by phone.
Two of the charity's transitional-housing homes are headed to foreclosure, and a loan compliance officer from mortgage holder Vantage West filed a police report earlier this year alleging possible fraud. The report says Carlo Giovingo, Wright's husband, denies that a signature in his name on loan paperwork for one of the homes is his.
In an interview, Giovingo reiterated that he has nothing to do with either of the Vantage West homes, and said he does not agree with Williams' account of the charity's demise.
"He has done everything he can to take the organization apart," he said. "I'm sure he's blaming the former director for everything. She's the scapegoat for everyone."
Adding to the charity's financial problems, the landlord renting the space for The Giving Tree's thrift store, 4545 E. Speedway, filed a lawsuit in December seeking $170,000 in unpaid rent and damages, court documents show. The landlord of the organization's other thrift store forgave unpaid back rent as a way of getting the charity to leave, Williams said.
The charity owes another $1,400 in unemployment pay to the state, Williams said, citing a state audit from the Department of Economic Security.
When the Star ran its investigation, The Giving Tree required homeless people using its facilities to work without pay in its thrift stores and to hand over their food stamps while also paying rent in exchange for a place to stay.
"They did a whole restructuring after Libby left," said Roy Tullgren III, the executive director and pastor of The Gospel Rescue Mission, who was assigned to an external advisory committee for The Giving Tree in late 2010. "They lost so much support because of the bad publicity and it was even more difficult to make ends meet."
Williams said he'd hoped the charity could survive.
"I wanted to be the person that could do the transition away from the bad past into whatever future," he said.
But the task became impossible because the organization had been built on an unethical practice of making clients work for free, he said. With the work requirement gone, the organization began disintegrating, he said. Despite a financial restructuring, there simply wasn't enough cash.
"It's disappointing, but the economy is not in a position to support a lot of altruism right now," board chairman Lohr said. "Folks have been very generous. It's just becoming increasingly difficult."
Though the director's job is a paid position, Williams says he hasn't been paid by The Giving Tree in several months.
In addition to its debts, The Giving Tree is violating terms of the special warranty deed on the vacant property where it served meals at 4431 E. 22nd St., Williams said. The deed, sold to the charity by a local family for $1,000, requires The Giving Tree to construct a building by 2014 in order to keep the title.
"That family really wanted a building to be built for the purpose of community service and helping the poor," said Williams.
Since the charity is closing and can't keep the terms of the deed, it will likely give the property back to the family, he said.
Several properties that The Giving Tree owns will be sold and the money will go toward paying off the charity's debts, Williams said. The charity's Compassion Hope Center, 4650 E. Eastland St., may go back to the couple who hold the note on the building, he said.
The Giving Tree was created as a nonprofit corporation in 1998 with a faith-based mission to help those in need.
Tullgren, of the Gospel Rescue Mission, said it served homeless and near-homeless Tucsonans who may have otherwise fallen through the cracks. However, he doesn't think the impact of the closure will be significant since the charity had scaled back its operations in the last year.
Williams said his Christian faith led him to the job and it's the reason he's working for free and seeing it through to the end. Several churches have been helping him to pay his bills in recent months, he said.
He said he'll stand out on the dirt lot at scheduled mealtimes, including today, to let people know The Giving Tree is closed. He said there are other charities in the vicinity where people in need can get free meals.
"This will never happen to me again. When I do charity work in the future, the people I do the work with are going to be like-minded, charitable people. I've learned some hard lessons," he said. "This nonsense that was The Giving Tree. ... There's a tremendous amount of relief I don't have to do this anymore."
Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or email@example.com