Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Salvation Army - facts and fiction

This article was started by a posting on Facebook that the Salvation Army denied housing to gay couples and that religious involvement was mandated. That got my attention and for a brief period of time I was hesitant to donate to any of the bell ringers found in all our areas at this time.  Like any statement on social media, you must come to your own conclusion, so I decided to check it out on a personal level.

I made arrangements to meet with the manager of our local shelter and tour the facility.  I've been to parts of this building in the past dropping off bedding and food as needs are made known, but had no first hand experience with the sleeping areas. And I thank my lucky stars for that.

I learned a lot about this facility in my one hour tour and discussion. It's more than just a bed for the night, although I'm sure that is a welcome sight for anyone faced with the prospect of sleeping under the bridge.  It is a hand up, not a hand out, and designed to help people get back on track.  There are many services provided as needed.

Nursing students from Viterbo go to the shelter to administer health screening and medical services within their scope as part of their training.  This is a definite plus for the homeless population staying there who would not have access to even rudimentary medical care. 

A child care room has been set up by a former resident and is run by volunteers to care for children while the parent goes to job interviews, looks for housing, attends to their medical needs or any other host of reasons.  If not for this brief respite, the parent(s) are with their children 24-7 with no break at all, in shared space with many others.  I know personally that I would become certifiably insane in a short period of time under these circumstances!  It's hard enough to keep kids entertained within your own comfortable home and having the means to attend a movie or outing.

The large open area off the kitchen has tables and benches set up during the day where three meals are provided to residents and anyone in the community who needs a questions asked.  At night the tables are folded up and the cots stored in the lockers on the side of the wall come out and are set up bedtime.  This area is for the men to sleep in.  There is another area for women and children that is separate.  Couples (married or not) coming in with children must be split up with the men sleeping in the general area and the mother and the children in their area.  

All sounding pretty normal at this point?  Here is where the kicker comes in.  Our shelter can house 95 people.  They are experiencing a much larger amount of children and families than ever before.  This creates some challenges for where they sleep.

There is a small area available for handicapped persons as well as "odd couples" that can't be housed in the general areas.  This may be a man coming in with a small daughter.  You really can't comfortably separate them, but neither can go into the others area.  The same situation applies with a woman coming in with a teenage son.  These situations cause some difficult choices.  Add to that the issue of someone who is transgender.  If they are not far enough in the process to have actually become the opposite sex, where do you safely house them?

In some situations such as these, they may be sent to a hotel with a voucher for a one night stay or longer.  This obviously puts a great strain on an already strained budget.

There is very limited storage for possessions, which doesn't cause too much of a concern as most have only a few meager items with them.  As I was asked by the lady providing the tour, "How many coats do you have?"   I flinched to think of the spring coats, and dress coats and long wool dress coat, etc that are in my closet.  "How many do you absolutely need?" she added.  One.  I made a mental note to go through the closets again and weed out items that people could use now as the weather gets colder.

There are showers provided as well as washing machines and cleanliness is stressed not only out of necessity but to raise morale.

There are psychiatrists available for mentally ill residents, another growing population.  There is spiritual guidance provided for those who want this.  Sometimes this is the missing piece to someone putting their life back together during a very dark time.  But NEVER is it mandated to attend the church services or bible study.  This was further enforced by reviewing both the Staff Intake forms and the Resident Orientation booklet with the policies and procedures.  On page three of the orientation packed it states (and I quote) "I understand that I am not required to participate in any of the religious activities offered by the La Crosse Salvation Army, and my stay at the shelter or eligibility for other social service programs is not determined by or contingent upon my participation in these activities".  This would of course be the case as they receive government funded grants.

When I asked specifically about the statement of gay couples being denied housing I was told it was nothing ever asked on any form and was not an issue.

Do they have strict rules there?  You bet.  They have to in order to provide safety and comfort for a general population that is in a tight space.  Some of these are obvious - no smoking in the building, you must be 25' away from the entry to smoke.  No drugs or alcohol - that's a no-brainer.  This is enforced by giving a nightly breathalyzer in the evening.  No inappropriate materials such as pornography.  No abusive behavior of any kind, physical, mental, emotional, sexual, or verbal.  No cursing or profane language.  No weapons.
There are many mundane lesser rules I won't go into such as use of the TV, telephone, food, etc.  No short shorts or revealing tank tops. T-shirts with inappropriate wording such as swear words, gang sayings or references to drugs or alcohol are unacceptable attire.

No fraternization with other residents or staff members.  This means no relationships, no public displays of affection, and no pairing off among residents.  Unmarried couples won't be assigned to the same dorm room.  Certainly anyone with common sense can see the logic here.  Everyone must pull together to serve a great good for the community.  This is something I fear we are losing as we become more and more focused on our rights without remembering our responsibilities. 

It may sound strict and perhaps harsh, but they really do try to create a safe and welcoming area to those in a desperate situation.  If clothing is needed a voucher is provided to go to the Salvation Army Thrift Store to pick out what is needed.

Just think about the season we are at right now and the family we may have staying overnight or for a few days...maybe longer in some situations.  You can "get through" a short visit, but if you knew they were going to be staying with you for an extended length of time you'd need to set up some rules so everyone knows what is expected to help each other stay sane.

I count myself blessed to have never needed the haven this shelter provides.  I have personally received help earlier in my life when my grandmother purchased work clothes for me from the Thrift Shop when I returned home after my divorce.  I was able to do job interviews and get back on track.  With our economy the way it is these days these people are not just deadbeats and ne'er-do-wells...they are families who had one too many things go wrong, a medical emergency, a car breaking down, downsized out of a job...the list goes on.  Many people today are just one step from losing everything.  It can happen to anyone.

It felt good to have checked into this false statement and be able to know for myself what the truth is.  It also felt good to hand them the check for my donation towards the good they are doing and I will resume putting change in each and every kettle I pass by.

I apologize for the length of this post - I generally try to keep my funny little blogs short and sweet, but this was an important topic to me and I had to get it all out there.

Long Live the Queen of her own castle


  1. Way to go, girl! I want to commend you on going to the source to find the truth. My kids and I were only sort of homeless once many years ago. My car died and I was trying to pay a divorce lawyer. After food and clothes for the kids and trying to meet these two bills, there was nothing left to pay rent. Luckily for us, my friend took us in for a few months till I could get back on my feet. To this day, I am so grateful for all that I have. My children and I pass this good deed along by holding out a helping hand to others in need. It's a nice feeling.

    You have a wonderful night, and I can't wait to see your photos. Good luck with your classes. Hugs, Edna B.

  2. I appreciate you "investigating" this information for yourself, rather than just passing on words that someone else said. Thank you my Creative Friend. God bless you and your family and friends. Colleen

  3. Brilliantly written and a wonderful explanation. I applaud your commitment and service to others. - Jerry Criss