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Salvation Army Closes Shelter Program for High-Risk Homeless Men

Nonprofit sees no option to shutting down Booth Emergency Drop-In Shelter program. “There are some people who would rather live outside than have to abide by rules.”

August 16, 2012
Ben Madden , The Maui Weekly

The Salvation Army called it the Booth Emergency Drop-In Shelter program, or B.E.D.S. But to the 30 homeless men who bunked on the Kahalui center's floor each night, it was simply called "Sally's."

Closing July 31, the program was, as much as anything, a social experiment posing this question: If you give a homeless man a meal and a cot, how much will he change his fate on his own, without structure or rehabilitation?

After fours years, the answer was in, and it was "not too much," according to workers and managers involved with the program. With a rapidly deteriorating building, problems with neighbors and threats against clients and staff, the Salvation Army said there was no option other than shutting the program down. In doing so, it left Maui with one less resource for its most chronically homeless residents.

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The Kahului Salvation Army center closed its B.E.D.S. overnight program, serving up to 30 homeless men, on July 31.

B.E.D.S.' mission had been to care for every adult male who appeared in control and not under-the-influence at its 8:30 p.m. check-in. This arms-wide-open attitude may have also been the program's downfall. Among those in its care were those with physical and psychological issues, the alcohol dependent, medication dependent, street-drug users and minimum-wage workers needing a financial restart. It was a combustible mix, with only one staffer on the floor overseeing up to 30 men each night, seven days a week.

The initial purpose was to give men an emergency drop-in refuge for a number of days as they found work and a place of their own, said Major Fred Rasmussen, a Salvation Army spokesperson. By the time the program closed, "Over half had been there for at least a year--some up to three years," he said. "They were intimidating clients and making threats against the staff... instead of being a temporary shelter for many, it had become a permanent home for a few."

The Salvation Army complex, just a few steps from Maui Mall in central Kahalui, was built to serve a number of community functions, from after-school programs to Sunday morning church services. Although its centrality was a blessing for its homeless clients, it was viewed as a curse for some of its immediate neighbors, including churches, doctors' and dentists' offices, and a community pool.

More than 12 hours each day, many of the men would wait immediately at the edge of the Salvation Army's property. As the block offers little tree shade, men would spend the days nearby under any available business awning. Rasmussen said there were cases when families were stepping over men on the sidewalk to get to church services inside.

In addition to church services, the building was also used for womens' and children's programs, and this was perhaps the greatest stressor the B.E.D.S. program imposed. On the day Kahalui Corps Officer Major Iva West was interviewed for this story, there were 60 children arriving for vacation Bible school, with the keiki departing just minutes before the homeless men arrived.

When West and her husband, Major Brad West, assumed command of the center last summer, she says the B.E.D.S. program's facilities and mission were deteriorating at equally fast rates.

"The building was designed to handle a weekly load, not round-the-clock occupancy the way a hospital or hotel is," and its systems couldn't keep pace with the current demands, she said.

According to West, the Salvation Army received $90,000 in state funds annually for B.E.D.S., which covered food and energy costs, but didn't leave enough to cover the costs of plumbing, air conditioning and kitchen improvements.

"It was hundreds of thousands of dollars that couldn't be reimbursed," she said.

One former B.E.D.S. client reluctantly agreed to be interviewed on the condition that he remained anonymous. It was his opinion that the Salvation Army ran the program "like a business, and not like a nonprofit the way it should be." He noted that supplies were sometimes rationed and there was not a great variety of food options.

"Last night we got sausage and rice," he said of his current shelter situation. "We never got that at Sally's."

In the spring of this year, B.E.D.S. property thefts and threats of violence increased, and the need to make changes seemed particularly acute. West denied that any lone incident, including the recent theft of a staffer's $1,000 racing bike during his shift, had anything to do with the closing.

Over the last year, she said, the Salvation Army had been coordinating with other shelters to accommodate the men. The problem was that other programs required a level of structure, including drug and alcohol testing, that made them unpalatable to many B.E.D.S. clients.

There were men in the B.E.D.S. program who rose at 5 a.m. to take basic-labor jobs at $50 per day, and many are working diligently in alcohol and drug recovery programs. It's these men, West said, who are making the easiest transition out of the program. For those needing dependency help, she said the Salvation Army offers a variety of options, including a rehab facility on O'ahu with such an impressive track record that it's used by state courts as an incarceration alternative.

Local shelters offer a less stringent alternative to round-the-clock programs, but West knows that even occasional drug tests impose too much structure for homeless men who'd rather live on the street than fight addictions.

"We have done our best to relocate the guys, but some opted not to go to another shelter," she says. "There are some people who would rather live outside than have to abide by rules."

Salvation Army Corps Sergeant Mark Saxon, known to his homeless clients as "Pastor Mark," has triple qualifications as clergy, a former homeless man and a U.S. Army Airborne combat veteran. Though he normally works day shifts, he stayed with the men in the B.E.D.S. program its last two nights, which he said was a personally moving experience.

"I was there to tell them that we loved them and that God loved them, and that even though the B.E.D.S. program was closing, the Salvation Army wasn't going anywhere," Saxon said.

The Salvation Army Center continues to operate its Safe Haven homeless program each weekday morning.



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