Salvation Army faces new future

Now that food bank can stand on its own, agency shifts focus to housing, emergency help

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

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The Vancouver branch of the Salvation Army is experiencing empty-nest syndrome this summer.

Since the Clark County Food Bank moved into a spacious new warehouse and became an independent nonprofit, its organizational parent has been figuring out how to regain some limelight and replace the money that followed its child out the door.

As of July 1, the Salvation Army officially “turned over operations of what was for us the Stop Hunger Warehouse program,” said business administrator Steve Rusk. Rusk said he spent the past two decades focused on growing the Stop Hunger Warehouse — originally a tiny program adopted from Clark County, which started it but ultimately didn’t feel it belonged in the food banking business — to the point where it could stand and run on its own two feet.

The Stop Hunger Warehouse eventually became the Clark County Food Bank, which raised $4.8 million and built its own building. The building opened in January 2012.

“This is what I’ve worked for for a long time, to grow the food bank so it’s a stand-alone program,” Rusk said. “I couldn’t be more happy and proud about what the food bank is doing. We’re looking forward to a good future for them.

“We surrendered notoriety to the food bank so they could build an organization and raise money,” he said. “Over the last five years, the Salvation Army has not been seen. When I go out to speak to people now, I hear confusion about what we do. This is an opportunity for us to expand and find a new niche.”

Less food, more housing

Salvation Army thrift stores are famous, and the money from those stores goes directly to its addiction-recovery programs — such as the Adult Rehabilitation Center near Portland International Airport. There is no such residential Salvation Army facility in Clark County; local referrals for that sort of drug and alcohol treatment go to Portland, Rusk said.

Less well known is the fact that the Salvation Army has long been in the homelessness-prevention and hunger-alleviation businesses. “Food and housing have been the two primary services we offer this community,” Rusk said.

The agency budget for calendar 2012 was approximately $3.1 million, Rusk said — but three full-time and two part-time staff positions plus about $350,000 in food-assistance grants officially left the Salvation Army along with the Clark County Food Bank operation as of July 1. “About one-third of our workforce went with that program,” he said.

Now, the Salvation Army has downsized to a staff of 12 at two facilities — its administrative office and church at 1500 N.E. 112th Ave. and its remaining social service operation in what used to be the Stop Hunger warehouse on Northeast 47th Avenue. The Salvation Army now occupies half the space it used to there, and Rusk said 80 to 100 needy people walk in the door there every day.

Those folks are often backed up against the wall and desperate to stave off homelessness, Rusk said. His agency has routinely provided both emergency rent and utility payments as well as longer-term rental subsidies and case management for people who are looking to better their lives and build their incomes. An intensive case-management program the agency started in 2005 called Moving Forward Together is designed to help the chronically unemployed build their life and employment skills so they can earn their own way out of poverty.

“We believe that’s a hallmark program and worth our long-term investment,” Rusk said. “We take care of people facing an immediate need to stop evictions, but we also want to help them stabilize their lives. We want to take this program to another level.”

In fiscal 2010, Rusk said, driven by the federal government’s infusion of stimulus money into the economy, Salvation Army housing assistance totalling $518,000 reached 518 Clark County households in one way or other. That money has peaked and dwindled significantly, Rusk said. In 2011 the Salvation Army supported 378 households with $378,000 in assistance; in 2012 the number was 302 households and $302,000.

Meanwhile, he said, the need has not dwindled at all. The Salvation Army serves approximately 18,000 people per year, he said — and that’s only 10 percent of all the requests for assistance it gets.

The good news, he said, is the recent approval of a new federal housing grant that will add significantly to the agency’s housing assistance bottom line.

Breaking the cycle

Another endeavor that Rusk is excited about is a new after-school partnership with Marrion Elementary School. The Salvation Army will bus participating children over from Marrion — which is just a few blocks away — to the agency headquarters on 112th Avenue, four days per week for three hours per day. There’ll be snacks and meals, tutoring and homework help, and even a bit of hands-on music education, Rusk said.

Rusk won an internal Salvation Army grant of $18,000 to hire a part-time coordinator and launch the program.

“Other Salvation Army units throughout the country have done this,” he said. It’ll be led by retired teachers and other volunteers who are “motivated and experienced” with kids who may be struggling in school.

“Through the kids, we want to build relationships with families who need our services,” Rusk said. “It’s a way that we can break the cycle of poverty.”

There’s room for 25 children in the new program, Rusk said.

Christian agency

All of which raises a question: is it a problem for an overtly religious agency to provide an after-school program for students at a secular, public school? For that matter, does Rusk ever think twice about the non-Christian people who may not feel entirely comfortable asking the very Christian agency for help?

“We are a Christian organization with solid Christian roots,” he said. “We are not looking to compromise that. We recognize that some people will probably not come to us.” He added that while some people would never take their troubles to a religious organization, others would only choose a religious organization.

“We offer what we offer without discrimination,” he said. “That’s a big deal. It packs a whole lot of meaning for us.”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits: scott.hewitt@columbian.com