"Work Therapy"—How the Salvation Army's Chain of Rehabs Exploits Unpaid Labor

Aug 18 2016

“Work Therapy”—How the Salvation Army’s Chain of Rehabs Exploits Unpaid Labor

by Kenneth Anderson

August 19th, 2016

Normally when we hear about people who use drugs being sent to forced labor camps as so-called “addiction treatment,” we think of places like Vietnam, China or the former Soviet Union. Surely nothing like this could happen in America?

But the civil rights of people who use drugs are not protected in this country. They are often unconstitutionally sentenced to religious programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. Many others, as Influence columnist Maia Szalavitz has documented, may be incarcerated indefinitely in so-called “tough love” programs.

Another sinister example is the unpaid “work therapy” which constitutes addiction treatment at the Salvation Army’s drug rehabilitation centers, known as the Adult Rehabilitation Centers (ARC) programs.

There are 119 ARC rehabs in the US, operating from coast to coast; an estimated 150,000 people go through this program each year. An average of 7,700 people live in the Salvation Army’s US rehabs at any given time.

I first heard about these programs from their clients years ago, when I did a stint as a cashier for minimum wage in the now-defunct Salvation Army store in Little Canada, Minnesota.

The guys who had been sent over from the rehab program for their work detail would be bumming cigarettes off me; they could not buy even rolling tobacco, since their allowance for working a 40-hour week was two dollars per day. I realized how well-off I was in comparison, since I could afford a can of Bugler rolling tobacco easily on minimum wage.

Even then, I thought it was important that someone expose what is essentially slavery by writing about it, which I am finally doing now. I have verified the facts by corresponding with the main office of the Salvation Army. Don Coombs, program director of the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center Command, Eastern Territory, sent the information to me via email and I obtained written permission to cite him as my source.

The Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) program is entirely residential and is always offered free of charge. Coombs stated that most clients are either homeless or court-ordered. The basic program lasts from six to 12 months, depending on the client.

Should they decide to leave the program, their only options are often to go to prison (if they are court-ordered) or to return to living on the streets.

What does therapy in ARC consist of? The primary form is “work therapy.” In exchange for three hots and a cot, the Salvation Army’s rehab clients are expected to labor for 40 hours a week, without pay, for the profit of the Salvation Army stores.

“Work is used as a therapy to assist persons in learning how to be of service to GOD and others…” Coombs wrote. “[clients] receive no financial wage or other compensation.”

The work consists of some pretty tedious and foul jobs, such as sorting through donations of clothing and other items to be sold in Salvation Army stores (such donations are often tainted with feces or vomit), and bailing up unsalable items for shipment overseas. Other forms of “work therapy” may involve moving furniture or janitorial work, including cleaning toilets.

What sort of services do clients receive in return for this?

According to the Salvation Army’s email, residents are typically housed four to 20 persons per room. In addition to work therapy, other therapy consists of mandatory Bible study and mandatory participation in Salvation Army worship services.

According to Coombs: “The ARC provides individual counseling for both spiritual and character formation. We also provide both education and group services as well. Clinical services for mental health and/or chemical dependency most likely are referred to local agencies.”

He also stated stated: “Most centers do provide information on attending 12 Step meetings. However, beneficiaries are encouraged to develop a ‘self-help support system’ that is often beyond a 12 Step group. For example, some may attend a weight loss group, bereavement support group, outside church services, Celebrate Recovery, and a host of other approaches that they find helpful. All persons are required to develop a self-help support system, but each person’s is quite individual and reflective of their personal choices and needs.”

What sort of outcomes do these programs have? Coombs stated that no records of success rates were kept, but that the completion rate for the program was 17 percent.

Why so low? Any use of alcohol or drugs results in immediate termination from the program. However, it is also likely that many clients find they would prefer sleeping on the streets to being exploited as slave labor and having their rights to freedom of religion violated on a daily basis.

What is this charity that engages in such despicable practices?

Founded in London in 1865 by William Booth, the Salvation Army is a Christian denomination that structures its organization in a military fashion and derives its theology from Methodism. Since its inception, it has taken a prohibitionist stance towards both alcohol and tobacco.

Booth roundly condemned any form of social drinking, saying that alcohol “is an evil in itself,” that you should “never let a drop of intoxicating liquor be used as a beverage in your house for any reason whatever,” and that it is not safe for anyone ever “to take strong drink in what is called moderation.”

He described tobacco as an “enormous evil,” which “injures the brain and consequently the entire nervous system.”

The Salvation Army has not moderated its position on alcohol and tobacco in the intervening years. A 1990 position statement says: “The Salvation Army requires its members to refrain from Social Drinking.” The only change is that now, in addition to despising the use of alcohol or tobacco, the Salvation Army also focuses its abuse on people who use other drugs.

According to Forbes, the Salvation Army is currently the second largest charity in the United States, with an annual income of $4.1 billion from donations, investments, sales and other sources. Its full financials can be found here (note that all amounts are in thousands of dollars).

With this kind of budget, the Salvation Army could surely do better than sleeping 20 people to a room, using them as slave labor, and achieving a completion rate of 17 percent. Instead, they could be offering decent housing, decent wages, and the best evidence-based treatment, which includes, for example, a non-abstinence-based housing model.

It seems clear that the Salvation Army, despising people who use any drugs, believes that such people simply deserve the kind of “treatment” offered by ARC. Certainly, no expense seems to be spared when it comes to PR and self-promotion.

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Although in its financial statement the Salvation Army claims that 21 percent of its expenditure, $702,539,000, is spent on “rehabilitation,” there is little evidence that this money is spent on the clients. Looking at the fact that average occupancy of the program is 7,700 clients, this would work out to over $90,000 per client year. It surely seems that clients are not receiving $90,000-a-year’s worth of services; on the contrary, the Salvation Army is receiving tens of thousands of dollars of free labor per client year.

We might be able to learn more if we could look at the organization’s tax forms. But wait—the Salvation Army is legally a church and does not file tax forms for the vast majority of its activities. The Salvation Army is comprised of six separate corporations, only one of which files a tax form: the Salvation Army World Service Office (SAWSO). And the SAWSO tax form reports an income of about $21 million—about one half of one percent of the organization’s total income.

Where does all the money go? With ads for the Salvation Army everywhere, it is clear that a good chunk is spent on self-promotion.

However, since the Salvation Army is legally a church, it can also give its officers free housing, free vehicles, free health insurance, free furniture, and practically free everything else, in addition to paying them a salary, as a recent article reports.

The Salvation Army seems to be an organization primarily dedicated to “doing the most good” for itself. When it comes to people who use drugs, a more fitting motto would be “doing the most harm.”

An America where people are forced to labor without compensation under threat of prison is not an America that I can support. Everyone should have the right to decide what to put into their own body, and people who use drugs should not be imprisoned or exploited by the self-righteous.

There are many organizations other than the Salvation Army which will take your donations of items and actually put them to good use—such as Housing Works, which provides housing for people living with AIDS, or Goodwill, which connects people with paying jobs.

Or, do what I do. Give money directly to the panhandler and cut out the middle man. Perhaps they will spend it on alcohol or other drugs, but at least that way it might provide someone a modicum of pleasure, which beats forced labor every time.


Kenneth Anderson is the founder of the HAMS harm reduction program for alcohol, and the author of How to Change Your Drinking: A Harm Reduction Guide to Alcohol. He has worked in harm reduction since 2002, including “in the trenches” doing needle exchange in Minneapolis, serving as online director for Moderation Management, and working as director of development at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center. His last piece for The Influence was: “How American Progressivism, Imperialism and Eugenics Spawned International Drug Control.” You can follow HAMS on Twitter: @Harm_Reduction.

  • Ken – a strong and important piece. I look forward to theit response.

    Scott

  • Lindsay Anne

    SA is receives significant federal money to fight “human trafficking” and “slavery” in the US. How painfully ironic.

  • Silver Damsen

    When I was in AA in Champaign, I did know several people who worked as supervisors for the Salvation Army men’s shelter, and also some of the people who stayed there. I also knew the head of the program. I never heard anyone talking about forced labor, or working at the store. I do know that all the men were expected to attend AA and that attending AA gave them breaks on other behavior. I also know that men could be thrown out of the shelter for violations that would seem pretty petty by any standards, missing a middle of the afternoon meeting that didn’t really do much of anything, when they were also expected to try and find work.
    I’m not saying that the work exploitation doesn’t happen, it does make sense that it would happen at some locations because of how the Salvation Army is structured and how one is really not seen as having normal human rights when one has a substance abuse issue and also seems to have trouble getting and keeping paid employment. It really is that beggars can’t be choosers in this case. So rather than charity organizations or even the programs designed to help the poor, such as SSI, and government housing programs, those using them are never allowed to forget that they are inferior to the lowest of the low that can hold a paid job. This kind of mind set opens the door for a lot of other exploitation. Indeed, the mindset might be so deep that individuals were exploited at slave labor wages without it even being a topic of discussion, just because an individual who asks for aid is already considered more or less sub-human so that it wouldn’t even be considered slave labor to exploit them.

    • Kenneth Anderson

      Hi Silver
      Things may well be different at the SA men’s shelter. That is not a rehab program. The Salvation Army also runs something called Harbor Lights which is separate from the ARC program. However, this article is an accurate description of what goes on in the Salvation Army ARC program which serves 150,000 clients per year. Everyone in the ARC program does forced labor.

      • Silver Damsen

        Kenneth,
        As soon as you said “Arc” the light bulb went on and I remembered. Yes, I did talk to one guy who talked about a really exploitative program he was in that, he thought, was distantly connected to the Salvation Army, and he thought was going to be about helping him stay sober. However, instead, they just demanded that he work at least 15 hours a day, and know I remember he called the Program “Arc” (it took a while for me to make the connections). It was so bad that not only did it’s results make him want to drink and use again (which he did both) he also had a break down. It seemed so strange what he was talking about that while I didn’t challenge him, I couldn’t fully believe it as a widespread problem either…. but now I do. Thank you for this important article.
        Arc helps no one in any kind of way possible, except the employer. It not only keeps people poor (as you note) but it can rob their soul, ironic for a an organization that is based on the idea of Christian philanthropy. However, the distance between what one would think Arc does and what it actually does explains why it can be so crushing to the people it exploits. These people go in at their lowest and expect help, but the result is exploitation and degradation and then more than likely to NOT be believed if they try to CALL ATTENTION to these problems.

  • The problem is the minimum wage – which prohibits these people from getting gainful employment, leaving few options such as crime and panhandling. As usual the meddlers and do-gooders end up hurting people by trying to ‘help’ them. In fact they are creating a class of people to abuse and exploit, as described in this article. Even low wage work provides dignity and self worth, and many people would choose it over panhandling, even if it was less lucrative. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken.”

  • Not to come to their defense, BUT… you can’t use totally inaccurate/manipulated figures. We aren’t teabaggers, after all.

    Your article claims they help 150,000 people year. Then you take their yearly expenditures of $750,000,000 and divide it by their average CURRENT/DAILY count of 7,700 to come up with $90,000 per person.

    It obviously should be divided by the YEARLY count of 150,000 for more like $5,000/person, which – when including room and board and services (wanted or not) – is not unreasonable considering many are upfront and/or fixed (doesn’t matter if/when they drop or not.)

  • kirby61

    No one should be court-ordered into a religious program without an alternative (I know there have been rulings to that effect regarding DUI drivers being forced to go to AA meetings); it does bother me that a corporate (albeit non-profit) entity would use “free” labor for its fundamental operations; but I don’t think the situation is quite as Dickensian as described–and that comes from knowing several people who have gone through (at least part of) the ARC program. What I heard is that living conditions aren’t lavish but hardly squalid (and yes, better than “the streets”), they’re well-fed, get medical attention when needed–and there is no charge for any of this; except, of course, the work. Most of which, as per my understanding, work within the facilities where they live. Toilets they use don’t clean themselves. I did regularly run into one old friend on my daily walks when he was picking up and delivering donations to the local thrift store. You only get that job after you’ve been there awhile and earn their “trust” to drive around their trucks, and (reiterating my discomfort at giving a “professional” driving job to an unpaid resident) he was pretty thrilled to be out and about instead of stuck in the facility. He griped about this or that, but he didn’t think he was being treated unfairly; he could walk out any time he wanted to.

    I am in total agreement about drug laws, and I also don’t think every problem drinker needs to completely abstain. I don’t see what that has to do with the ARC program, though; no program, secular or religious, is going to let people drink or do recreational drugs while IN the program! And unless someone IS ordered into the ARC with no recourse (which I’ve already said shouldn’t happen) the “religious freedom” argument doesn’t hold water. It’s a Christian program and you know that going in. Anyone who opts for homelessness rather than recite some prayers and attend Bible classes couldn’t have found the streets that awful. The ARC alumnae I’ve known didn’t always–by any means–agree with all the religious stuff. They did it as part of the deal and with some cynical humor about the whole thing.

    As I said, I have problems with the structure and “business model” of the Salvation Army, but to the people I knew it was a relief from scrabbling for drugs and a place to crash out on the streets. And if they did leave, they weren’t fleeing from indentured “oppression”; it was–in every case I know of–because they were feeling better and more confident and wanted to have some fun and get high. Which I think is not at all a bad thing to itch for, but is different from a desperate escape from Oliver Twist’s “Please sir, I want some more” poorhouse.

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  • Doug Lowe

    There are a few issues with the conclusions made in this essay.

    The correct calculation of investment per client per year is with the 150,000 figure. If 150,000 people go through the program and The Salvation Army spends $702,539,000, then they spend approximately $4683 per client, not $90,000.

    Most alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs last 90 days, while, according to the essay, The Salvation Army’s lasts between 180 and 360 days. So an answer to the question “why [is the program’s graduation rate] so low?” could be that it is difficult for clients to stay committed to treatment for that length of time. I am not saying that this is the only factor in the low graduation rate, but it is certainly noteworthy.

    There seems to be an implication that The Salvation Army distributes the money made at thrift stores to its officers (who are ministers) and its other administrators. However, according to their site http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/adult-rehabilitation, the money made from the sale of donated clothes, furniture, etc. is actually used to fund the ARC program itself. The Salvation Army does not accept government funding for this program. So essentially, ARC clients are providing the funds for their own rehabilitation by participating in their work therapy.

  • Doug Lowe

    There are a few issues with the conclusions made in this essay.

    The correct calculation of investment per client per year is with the 150,000 figure. If 150,000 people go through the program and The Salvation Army spends $702,539,000, then they spend approximately $4683 per client, not $90,000.

    Most alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs last 90 days, while, according to the essay, The Salvation Army’s lasts between 180 and 360 days. So an answer to the question “why [is the program’s graduation rate] so low?” could be that it is difficult for clients to stay committed to treatment for that length of time. I am not saying that this is the only factor in the low graduation rate, but it is certainly noteworthy.

    There seems to be an implication that The Salvation Army distributes the money made at thrift stores to its officers (who are ministers) and its other administrators. However, according to their site http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/adult-rehabilitation, the money made from the sale of donated clothes, furniture, etc. is actually used to fund the ARC program itself. The Salvation Army does not accept government funding for this program. So essentially, ARC clients are providing the funds for their own rehabilitation by participating in their work therapy.

    • thismonograph

      i grew up in the salvation army. my parents were officers. at the time, officers could not own any personal property. the church owned that “free” car, house, and furniture. i believe this is still the case. so if you dared leave the church or were fired or otherwise forced to resign (this happens a lot if you decide to challenge your superiors or you don’t meet your budget quota via the red kettle appeals), you have **nothing**. you lose that salary, health insurance, and “free” everything else. my family basically lived in poverty most of my childhood because we lost everything we had thanks to the SAs cult-like structure. and by the way, the salary isn’t very big especially if you have children. at least it wasn’t when i was a part of it in the 80s and 90s.

      you could very well end up being helped by the organization that fired you. i’ve seen it happen more than once that SA families have had to go there to see their social workers.

      the ARCs are definitely a joke. half our congregation at any time was comprised of folks living at the ARC. many did not want to be there. some liked it well enough. but i thought at the time that it was ridiculous to force people to be there, not to mention count them as part of the congregation when they weren’t necessarily willing participants. (officers were expected to keep a head count for all programs and to report this to their commanding officers.)

      a lot of people who become ministers in the SA believe they *are* doing good. in some cases, they are actually helping people. but it’s the decision-makers and the family dynasties within the church (e.g. nepotism) that are damaging people and putting profit ahead of helping people get off the streets and get clean and sober.

      also, let’s not forget that the SA got a HUGE gift from the kroc family – yes, ray kroc, founder of mcdonald’s. they are currently naming many of their churches after them. they can definitely afford to pay their ARC participants a decent wage that would help them get on their feet.

      the SA is cult-like. don’t give them your money. they don’t actually need it.

  • Genevieve Doyle Pershin

    They also apply everyone in their program for food stamps.

  • Bart W. Miles

    Oh no bias here, a harm reduction advocate (program founder/director) going after an abstinence program. But the amount of made up information in your piece is rather pathetic (see comments of Harry and Doug). I see you have no problem going after a charitable org that also provides housing for the homeless, food for homeless and hungry, housing for women and children experiencing domestic violence, emergency utilities for families in need, emergency response to natural disaters etc. I guess you’re tooooooo afraid to go after the biggest driver of abstinence programs in your own backyard Hazelden!

    • Kenneth Anderson

      I am always happy to attack Hazelden, Bart!!

  • Rudolph Edward Luciani

    Great article! I never knew I was allergic to human dander until I was sentenced to 40 hours of “community service” sorting unwashed donation clothes in the back of a Salvation Army store!

  • Andrew_C_Bairnsfather

    Sick. Not really a fan of Bon Jovi but “you give love a bad name” instantly came to mind. Thanks for your research and reporting on this.

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  • Michael Emery

    I spent a year and a half in the Detroit Salvation Army,,they saved my life,,,it was the only treatment available..and it is a go program and there where 6 men in a room