How Stanislaus County’s homeless are saving the Salvation Army – and vice versa

Good things can happen when two people who need each other find each other. Or, two groups.

In this case, The Salvation Army in Modesto is saving many of our homeless, while our homeless help save The Salvation Army.

Not everyone is aware of the financial crisis that our Salvation Army has been weathering. Last year, officers and local advisory board members caught some by surprise with a letter to the editor in The Modesto Bee, pleading for help because “in recent years, we’ve struggled.”

They didn’t spell it out, but here is the sober truth: The Salvation Army had been hemorrhaging, spending about $300,000 a year more than they had for important services to the most needy and vulnerable among us. The nonprofit covered its deficit with reserves, including money in trusts and endowments bequeathed by generous people, until the money was gone. That’s a scary way to operate; companies resorting to such desperation don’t stay in business long.

Meanwhile, a federal court decision involving Boise indicated that homeless people could camp on public property if they had nowhere else to go, including California cities. Modesto directed its homeless to Beard Brook Park, and later replaced that Band-Aid by establishing with Stanislaus County the Modesto Outdoor Emergency Shelter, a tent city partly under the Ninth Street Bridge. It would last only a few months while the county transformed a Berberian warehouse into a huge shelter close to downtown, at Ninth and D streets.


Turning Point Community Programs was tapped to operate the tent city, and everyone assumed Turning Point also would run the huge new shelter, which is next to an existing, slightly smaller Salvation Army shelter at the same Berberian campus. When insurance problems arose for Turning Point, the county began to explore whether the army might run both shelters, side by side.

“No organization has as much experience operating shelters as the Salvation Army,” said Salvation Army Major Harold Laubach in a recent interview. He and his wife, Major Maggie Laubach, arrived in June from Santa Cruz, where they had set up four homeless shelters including a tent city much like Modesto’s. Nationally, The Salvation Army provides more than 10 million nights of emergency lodging each year.

The Salvation Army said “yes” to Stanislaus County, and on Tuesday, county supervisors formally sealed the deal. Homeless people will begin moving to the huge new shelter by Nov. 15, and a bunch of new services — mental health, job searching and home searching, for example — will be offered by January.

This is the county’s largest and most visible homeless project; other plans include turning motels on South Ninth Street and Kansas Avenue into homeless or transitional housing, plus a cold-weather shelter for families at a migrant camp in Empire. Modesto and the Stanislaus Housing Authority are partners in some of those plans.

It’s obvious why the Berberian double-shelter is good for homeless people who agree to move there and take advantage of all that help. Less obvious may be how this arrangement benefits The Salvation Army.

Because of eroding finances, The Salvation Army has made some tough decisions lately, including laying off some employees while consolidating operations of its two Modesto campuses: the Citadel, best known for its soup kitchen at 625 I St., and the Red Shield Center in south Modesto, which offers an array of classes and activities for all ages. The army also quietly closed its low-income day care center next to the soup kitchen, ending a yearly subsidy of $100,000, and will lease that building to another day care company, bringing the army new revenue.

The army’s new homeless deals are icing on the cake. Earlier this year, the government began paying the army $8 a day for every homeless person it feeds (the soup kitchen soon will move to an expanded facility in the refurbished Berberian center). And the county will pay the army $162,000 a year to lease the huge new shelter.

So The Salvation Army’s previously dismal outlook has dramatically changed, in rather short order, in part because they’re doing more to help our homeless. We all have reason to be thankful for that.