Salvation Army and agency must be held accountable

First published: November 29, 2006

Two families facing some very hard times made headlines last week. The first was a young couple, Mike Defosse and Shana Harris, who claim they were shamed in public and denied assistance by the Salvation Army when seeking help for themselves and their three children. The second was a single mother, Robyn Harrison, with five children, who faces eviction from her subsidized housing unit in the Elgin Street area.

Nothing about either of these two examples is easy to understand. But, as the Christmas season is upon us, it is much harder to comprehend.

Yes, we do not have all the details; nor will it be easy to get them. Privacy laws in Ontario and across Canada do not allow personal information to be discussed by charitable organizations or government institutions without the express permission of the individuals involved. So, officials for the Salvation Army and the County Housing authority are hamstrung, giving us no comments or cryptic statements that fail to enlighten or satisfy as sense of injustice toward these people.

But, as a community, we are also left hanging in the wind. Without the full disclosure, how can we hold these people and the organizations they represent accountable? Both families appear, from their side of the story, to have legitimate concerns. And, if their stories hold true under scrutiny, then something should be done immediately to rectify it. No decent resident of Northumberland would feel any different.

Without all the information, we are left wondering how these social services function and question the way our community treats people in serious need.

It is far too easy, as many like to argue, to turn our backs. There are people who would say: “Pull up your bootstraps!”; “They are just lazy. Get a job!”; and, “Be thankful for what you get and stop complaining.”

In some cases, this could be good advice. But more often than not, any social service agency can tell you there are far many more people who truly need help. In her incredible book, Nickel and Dimed, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich sheds her own middle-class life to seek a minimum wage job and see how hard it is to live as a member of the working poor. Her candid examination is shocking as she uncovers of the working conditions, lifestyle and hardship for people living in the margins of our society.

While those who are fortunate to enjoy a decent living, the fairy tale of modern life is shattered. The barriers these people face are both economic and personal. The courage to face each day barely able to pay for food and housing is daunting enough. Life is so fragile, one decision – paying the utility bill or putting food on the table – has life-altering significance. Try to imagine living like this.

There are also deeper questions, particularly for the Salvation Army. This social agency, motivated by Christian values, runs along a razor’s edge. It seeks to provide assistance, but limited resources, abuses in the system, personal and bureaucratic clashes cause one to question: how can they do it? If its good work is meant to be an expression of Christ’s life and values, then no one should be turned away. This is highlighted in the nativity story, when Joseph and Mary cannot find a proper room, but finally are given a space in a stable where Christ is born. The compassion of the innkeeper is an example. And, there are plenty of examples throughout the Bible of this kind of spirit we are meant to mirror, both as a community and as individuals.

While officials cannot publicly discuss the details, assurances must be given. Major Mark Cummings or Major Lynn Cummings need to do far more than they have already. As the Christmas Kettle campaign gets underway, residents in Northumberland need to feel nobody in need, at whatever level, is turned away. And, too, the community needs to be assured the money is not wasted either. But, more importantly, we need to feel people are treated with compassion, respect and are given every opportunity to receive available services and the Christian values are met.

Also, as a community, we must realize the more we give to the fundraising efforts of the Salvation Army and other organizations, the more good they can do. What this really is about is public accountability. Both the Salvation Army and the housing authority need to move beyond the cryptic answers and “no comments” to give the public full answers. And, if these two families seek social justice, then provide permission to these agencies to give full disclosure to facilitate public support and justice.

The deeper truth is: there are no simple answers. Both families live complicated lives with barriers to full employment to ensure decent lives for their young families. The frustration on both sides is the limited resources. As a community, we under-fund programs, leaving agencies to put band-aids on wounds that need stitches. Instead of removing hurdles, we often create them. To help someone overcome a learning disability or a family with someone who is mentally/emotionally challenged is not solved by a handout alone. Tackling those issues takes time, resources and a huge commitment from the entire community. Certainly, it not solved by turning people away or evicting them.

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