Disappointment and Exploitation in Salvation Army Workfare for the American Homeless

Among the various charities, businesses and other organisations, who have attracted bitter criticism for their support and participation in the workfare programme is the Salvation Army. Johnny Void has extensively blogged about it, and encouraged others to criticise and write letters of complaint about the Sally Ann’s involvement in this form of participation. Anthony Marcus also briefly mentions the experience of one of his informants’ experience of doing voluntary work for the Salvation Army in New York in his book, Where Have All the Homeless Gone. I have blogged about the book before, and intend to write a full review of the book after I’ve finished reading it. Marcus was an anthropologist who did his Ph.D. research for a programme intended to aid the homeless in the Big Apple from 1989 to 1994.

One of the obstacles facing the homeless men Marcus studied was the way the financial restrictions placed on the amount of money homeless people collecting SSI, the welfare benefit given to them, prevented them from getting a properly paid job that would enable them to move out of the homeless shelters and not-for-profit transient housing into proper accommodation. The homeless in shelters received $850 in SSI per month. Of this, $700 was deducted to pay for their lodging, supervision and anti-psychotic medication given to those with mental health problems. This left them with about $100 per month spare cash, which was given to them in small sums as spending money. The amount of SSI they received automatically dropped to $508 a month, which would hardly cover rent. Furthermore, those on SSI could not earn more than $74 a week. Marcus notes how this system prevented many of the most optimistic and enterprising homeless men from finding an outside job. The moment they did find one that would allow them the chance of finding a home, the SSI was withdrawn, and they found they could no longer support themselves. As a result, they usually found themselves back in the shelter. The care workers employed to help them therefore did their best to frustrate their attempts to find outside work, in order to prevent them losing their SSI and their place in the shelter or not-for-profit housing. Marcus states that his ‘informants who followed the programs laid out for them by the workers at their residences languished in make-work programs, dead-end jobs, and piecework provided by voluntary agencies at significantly less than the minimum wage.’ (p.26). This was despite the fact that many of his informants took educational courses provided by City College in order to improve their chances of getting a rewarding career. These included a man, who was studying mechanical drawing in order to fulfil his ambition of becoming an architect. Others studied, computers and even history.

One of these ambitious men interviewed by Marcus, was Eugene, a Black American. He decided to move to one of the homeless residences run by the Salvation Army because he had been impressed by what he’d heard about their programme to get people back into work. After a a month or so living and working for them, Eugene became bitterly disillusioned. Their work programme did not live up to his expectations, and in practised consisted of him working in their stores for a pittance. He became so disgusted with them, that eventually he was thrown out for purloining their stock and selling it cheaply under the counter. Marcus writes

‘There were employment programs at the shelter that paid pennies per hour, but most of my informants avoided such low-paid and humiliating work in favour of day labor as a security guard. However, I had two close informants who were involved in a similar program at a Salvation Army residence. Eugene, an African American man in his 30s, had chosen the Salvation Army over several other facilities due to its work socialization program. He had heard about the importance of employment training to their program and told me that he would, “rather be getting some real work experience than sitting with a bunch of mental patients learning how to make friends or practice proper hygiene.” Although their facilities were older and less pleasant than the newly renovated “small not-for-profits” as he put it, “if I put in six months working in one of their stores, I ought to be able to get a real job somewhere and move out pretty quick.”

My first visit to interview Gene was about three weeks after his placement. They had not yet given him a job, but they were paying him 17 cents an hour to mop floors in the residence and had promised him that within the month they would find him a real job working in one of the thrift stores. He was not very happy with the housing, which was a rodent and bug-infested aging flophouse on the Bowery that the Salvation Army had converted into a transitional housing facility, but was optimistic and believed that he was on the way up.

The second visit, a month later, found him still mopping floors and becoming increasingly discouraged at how little his life was improving. As he put it, “I’m not saving any money at 17 cents an hour, I still don’t have a job, and I can’t even afford to go see a movie after work. The shelter was a much better deal.” When they finally moved him to the thrift store after several months, he was not given an actual job, but remained part of their work rehabilitation program and therefore had neither a job description, a job title, nor a minimum wage salary. As he put it, “I’m not a cashier. I’m not an assistant manager. I’m not a sales person. I’m not even an assistant to the assistant janitor. I’m a nigger that pushes a mop and unloads trucks for a couple of dollars a day. I must be some kind of idiot.” he went on to point out that “with my SSI, I am actually paying these crooks $900 a month to give me a seventeen cent an hour job.”….

However, it wasn’t long before Gene was back with his mop at the residence. Caught selling half price merchandise to a young women in front of the Salvation Army, he understood that they would never let him near merchandise again. He believed that there was no way into the formal economy for an uneducated and somewhat disreputable looking African American man with a criminal record and few of the social or job skills necessary for success. He used his psychiatric diagnosis to get out of the work training program and began to secretly disappear from the residence for freelance work. The residence was supposed to be as “supportive” and restrictive as the R.C.C.A. [an intensively supervised residence for the homeless on 48th Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan], but there was virtually no paid staff to enforce the rules of the treatment programs. My other informant at this facility had recruited him to unload trucks on the street behind the residence for a Chinese store owner. The $5 an hour off the books wage was far superior to the work training program’s 17 cents an hour but it was a situation that would never enable him to get his own housing.’ (pp. 86-7).

I apologise for not censoring the ‘N’ word, but I felt that I needed to follow the text exactly. The term clearly expresses the disparaging racial attitude Eugen felt the Salvation Army had for him as a poor, Black unskilled labourer.

Now obviously, this is an American case, reflecting conditions in New York at the time. However, much of this is recognisably similar to the situation facing many of the unemployed in Cameron’s Britain, regardless of whether they are homeless or not. I’ve met people on my course, who are in a similar position to those homeless Americans, who are stuck in pointless, dead-end jobs in order to keep their benefit. This particular person is disabled and on benefit. The jobcentre is pressuring him to find a job he could do. However, he is afraid that if he did find one, signed off benefit, and then found that in fact he could not do the job, he would not be able to get back on benefit as he had declared himself fit for work.

I am also sure that there are probably others, stuck in a similar situation to the American homeless through the government’s restrictions on earnings from benefits, as part of their campaign to make sure that the ‘strivers’ in work don’t feel resentful and humiliated by the unemployed earning more than them.

As for the Salvation Army and its ‘work socialisation’ schemes, this really does seem merely to be a way of getting cheap labour. As Johnny Void has pointed out too many times, it’s exploitation. And the same thing is happening over here in their support for workfare. If the Sally Ann really is serious about helping the homeless, they should withdraw from the workfare programme. If they do wish to be part of national schemes encouraging the unemployed to perform voluntary work in their stores in preparation for finding real work, then this should be accompanied by real initiatives to get them a job, such as paid work placements. Even an increase in their Jobseekers’ allowance would be good, as it should reward their initiative in trying to find some kind of work rather than simply being a source of cheap labour. Unfortunately, I can’t see this occurring, as the current system seems designed merely to provide big business with a cheap, demoralised and so cowed workforce, thinly disguised as an attempt to tackle unemployment.

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2 Responses to “Disappointment and Exploitation in Salvation Army Workfare for the American Homeless”

  1. Editor Says:

    Reblogged this on kickingthecat.

  2. Ramsey Says:

    If you are homeless you are discriminated against in the homeless shelters. They make you work 30+ hours for nothing so you are stuck there working for them. It’s like slave labor either stay and work for them have no time or money to be able to find gainful employment or live on the streets and sleep on the sidewalks, ditches or even under dumpsters. They seem to be able to bypass all federal and state labor laws with no consciences. They say they are non- profit yet they take portions of ssi payments, receive grants, and own resale shops that they get merchandise for for free. We wonder why America is the shape it is. This a nation wide problem the missions are a drain on the tax payer through grants and keeping homeless as slave labor. The homeless are then a drain on the taxpayer through food stamps and not being able to obtain gainful employment and pay fair share of taxes due to lack of job. It’s simple if your homeless you are stuck as slave labor or stay on the streets and get no work due to your inability to shower,shave, and sleep properly. This will never change until the congress or president put forth a bill abolishing this discrimination against the homeless and makes the missions stop slave labor and pay minimum wage as everyone else who has individuals doing manual labor. As soon as this happens then the sooner our homeless problem goes away as far as those homeless that are addicts a random drug test at there expense from there earnings at the facility will weed them out. Thank you! Sincerely, A slave in America.

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