Salvation Army: Charity, but No Agent of Social Change

Commentary by Brian Davis

            The Grapevine and the local Coalition for the Homeless have dumped gallons of ink into detailing the problems with the Salvation Army to the extent that over the last two years other cities that are having problems with their local Salvation Army call asking for advice. Still nothing changes. Government still turns to this 100 year old institution. The major media handles this elderly organization with reverence, and the public blindly drops millions into the red kettles every Christmas.

            It is not that the Salvation Army does not do a great deal of good in the community. Their relationship with minority populations especially the Hispanic community is critical. They do a good job at giving out food especially the Disaster truck that drives around and gives out food every night. And during a national crisis, there is no other organization that we would trust to respond to a terrorist attack or tornado or building fire. All of these activities are non-judgmental and offer the individual something that most would agree they deserve in a respectful manner. As soon as this mammoth organization ventures into areas not traditionally considered an entitlement things break down.

            They treat individuals asking for help more like children who need to be disciplined. The Salvation Army has no real commitment to social justice and focus their energy on charity. In the rest of society, if a government entity or business works for over 100 years on addressing a problem and sees those problems expanding should we look somewhere else for solutions. The Salvation Army has struggled with hunger and homelessness for over one hundred years and the problem still exists. Army officials are the men at the end of the river pulling bodies out trying to save those individuals from drowning. For one hundred years, no one in those fancy uniforms ventured up the river to see why people keep ending up in the river.

            The Salvation Army does not step into policy debates for fear of offending their gravy train. They rarely comment on the root causes of poverty focusing their energy on serving the casualties of poverty. There is some mix of fundamentalist religion that seems to be at the root of the paternalistic attitude toward the down and out. They seem to have this philosophy, “Why should we listen to your opinions, if you were so smart you would not be asking us for help.” Then they always throw in that, “We have been around for one hundred years so we know best,” line.

            I would never champion the fact that the problems that I was working on for 100 years have yet to be solved. I see that as a mark of failure not something to use as a slogan. Resources are so tight for both food and shelter in our community, we must fight over the table scraps. Yet, we continue to turn to the Army for solutions to homelessness. No matter how mentally unstable some of their senior staff we continue to work with them. No matter how much disrespect clients receive in their facilities we extend government subsidies to them. No matter how much they distort the truth about their operations and the resources taken from our community and sent to the National headquarters, we drop our change in the red kettle.

I have had a problem figuring this out for years, but I think that I have come to the conclusion that they are the social service bank that government goes to for lines of credit. They operate these huge programs in most communities that receive massive public subsidies. Government is notorious for not paying their bills. Cleveland and Cuyahoga County had owed nearly $1 million to both the men’s shelter and the women’s shelter over this past year. What other organization could stay open when they are owed $1 million from the public sector? They continue to operate these cornerstone organizations in our community because no one else can afford to do it. Most organizations would have to shut down if they were owed such huge sums of money.

            Shelters are public institutions, and are operated by private charities out of convenience. We should not give up quality, respect, dignity, and innovative ideas to a tired, slow bureaucracy just because the public sector does not pay its bills. I can see no other reason that city officials would stand being publicly castigated like a child by a Salvation Army staff. I can see no other reason, City Council would not pull the contract immediately when they learned that white staff were calling their mostly black clients “monkeys” and the staff was not terminated. The County should have removed the contract when the Salvation Army went back on its commitment to take care of anyone that comes to the door at the men’s shelter as the Request for Proposal that they answered had demanded.

            The Salvation Army is a horrible partner in the homeless community. They are a bully that feel that they know better. They have no grasp on they dynamics of homelessness or the solutions. They do not understand that the drug treatment regimen of 12 step program cannot be the only way to serve homeless people. They have latched their horse to the 12 step model and are not letting go. They regularly “do not have that answer with me,” or flat out lie when asked about financial accountability. They will personalize the argument and say that I or the Coalition Board has an axe to grind. I have heard the same thing in our struggles at Care Alliance and with Project Heat, and I certainly think that I was vindicated in my advocacy. I had a good relationship with the former community or non-uniformed individuals running the Salvation Army in Cleveland, but over the last three years things have sunk to a purely hostile relationship.

            There are serious problems at the Harbor Light complex, which is a mental health, boarding house, detox, corrections pre-lease, and homeless shelter facility. This forces homeless people to be treated more like criminals then a welcoming and compassionate place to move back to stability. They conduct body searches of young children as they enter the women’s shelter at the facility. It is absolutely an inappropriate facility for homeless people to be housed. While it is difficult to get information because of their church status, it is clear from their public filings that the Salvation Army brings very little of its own resources to the shelters. They expect those programs to suck up enough public money to sustain themselves, and when the Federal government demand a local match they begin to charge homeless people rent in order to make the match. Very little if any of those millions that they collect from those red kettles goes to sheltering people in Cleveland. That is why they keep coming back to the public trough looking for help with regard to the huge numbers showing up at the men’s shelter. They offer no solutions using their money just a hand out asking for money.

            If they come to the table with their hand out maybe we should start treating them as they treat the homeless people who seek help at Harbor Light. We will search them before they enter for meetings to see if they are hiding money. We will make them wait on the back dock until a chair opens up. We will tell the Salvation Army executives, “If you don’t like it then bring your own checkbook like the City Mission does.” [Homeless people are repeatedly told by many shelter staff, “if you do not like it then get your own key.] Finally, we will put so many rules on their use of public money that they will give up. After stripping the Sal Army executives of their dignity we will keep them dependent on the public check book for the foreseeable future similar to the shelters that they run.

Copyright to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio December 2003 Issue 63.