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Wheeling Salvation Army’s Mission Rings True

Salvation Army Marches Toward Real Solutions To Homelessness in Wheeling

Photo by Eric Ayres Bell ringers are beginning to show up outside stores throughout the Ohio Valley, and all proceeds from the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle drives go to the local programs to support those in need.

WHEELING — A year-old program at the Salvation Army shelter in Wheeling is opening doors to end the cycle of homelessness for many who are willing to accept accountability and start a new chapter in their lives.

According to Capt. Mark Van Meter, commander of the Salvation Army in Wheeling, individual case management has offered a true avenue forward for those wishing to find a real solution to their dilemma. This young program is not only offering that path, but is achieving great success.

“In the last year, we have seen 20 men who now have apartments and jobs, and who have come out of homelessness because we restructured our program, and we really started working with them to come out of the cycle of homelessness,” Van Meter said.

“So it’s been an effective and efficient program here in the Wheeling area.”

Van Meter said about a year ago, the local Salvation Army made a big switch with its shelter program. Originally in the early 1970s, the Wheeling shelter was a men’s shelter, and somewhere along the line, the shelter started becoming a little bit more of a “family shelter,” Van Meter explained.

“But the design of the shelter did not allow for families,” he said. “When I got here, we just kind of did a program review — along with our division law office – and we determined that it was not in protocol to have women and children in this shelter. So last year, we dissolved the program and re-opened it within a couple of days as a men’s-only shelter.”

Somewhat of a backlash followed this move, Van Meter noted. Yet, he said, the transition back to a men’s only shelter was the right thing to do.

“We really took a hard hit in the community for that decision, but we had to do that, because there were just potential risks, potential litigation and all kinds of potential problems with having male and female and children in this shelter area, even though it had been running that way for many years,” he said.

Since the switch, they also redesigned the program while still offering the 21-day emergency shelter for men, and if women and children come in and need sheltering, they provide it in the lobby area on an as-needed basis. In the shelter itself, the men can stay for 21 days, but as a new part of the program, an alternate route is offered.

“At about 14 days, we start talking with the men and asking them ‘Do you want to get off the streets?’ and ‘Are you tired of the cycle of homelessness?’ — and we start working with them through case conferencing,” he said.

Part of the successful formula behind this new program are new staff members who are making great strides, Van Meter said. Early this spring, a new shelter manager was hired. “James” — Van Meter declined to give the manager’s full name — has openly shared the tale of his journey from being an ex-convict to becoming a resident manager that has helped Salvation Army shelters improve their programs across the country.

“He came through the Salvation Army Adult Rehab Centers out on the West Coast, and he knows all about the Salvation Army shelter programs and the Salvation Army’s recovery programs,” Van Meter said. “James went through the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehab Center, and he’s managed several Salvation Army shelters throughout Tennessee and Kentucky, so we’re very fortunate to get him here in West Virginia.”

Van Meter also hired an experienced case worker, Kim Nest, who he said truly understands case management.

“She’s helped us redesign our case conferencing system and really has been helping us move the men through a process of being accountable for their structure and helping them get into sustainable life,” he said. “We now work with these men who want to come off the streets.”

The “stopgap” in the cycle of homelessness is crucial, as is a homeless individual’s willingness and motivation to help themselves, Van Meter noted.

“Instead of just saying that ‘within 21 days, you’re out the door,’ we now say to them, ‘if you are willing to work with us and begin coming into case conferencing, we will sit and talk about your goals. Within the next three weeks, you’ll go out and put in applications, you’ll start working with the housing authority, you’ll work with the Wheeling Homeless Coalition, you’ll start these steps, you’ll start saving money. If you’ll do that, we’ll extend your housing here at our shelter,'” Van Meter said. “So now instead of just 21 days, we’ll let a gentleman stay here for 60 days if he meets certain goals, or 90 days if he meets other goals. And we’re doing that through intentional case conferencing with the men.”

Then, once these men get into an apartment, with the use of the Salvation Army’s thrift store, additional support can be provided, providing them dishes, pots and pans, towels, and in some cases furniture, if needed. This helps them get established in their new residence and actually gets them established in the community — a huge step toward helping them become productive members of the community.

“That was not happening before,” Van Meter said. “It was just this constant cycle of coming in, sleeping for two weeks and going back on the street.”

Community partnerships have also played a key role in this successful program. Local companies that are willing to take a chance and hire people with a felony record — as well as other people who want to work but are struggling to connect with employment — offer an immeasurable lifeline to those in need and help programs like this succeed.

The Salvation Army provides support, Van Meter said, but the clients have to take steps on their own to apply for a job and for housing.

“Our case worker will help them get the applications and help them fill it out,” he said. “A lot of time, these guys just don’t know how to do it. They don’t know what the next step is. And our case worker will say ‘here’s your next step. Go do this. You have until next week at our next case conference to get this done.’ It’s kind of providing that maternal, parental ‘you’ve got to go get this done by next week, and if you don’t get it done, you’re risking your bed in our lodge.’ It’s just that encouragement they need in order to do it. And yet there’s a reward. If you get this done and you move forward, you know you have a place to sleep tonight.”

The scorecard is showing the proof, Van Meter said, with 20 men in the last year getting off the street.

This success has changed the dynamic at the shelter, too.

“The attrition rate has changed for sure,” Van Meter said. “We don’t have nearly the number of beds that are being filled. We do drug and alcohol testing, because we want guys who are showing they mean business. If a guy comes in and he’s drunk, they can stay in a cot in our lobby, but we want guys who need a good night’s sleep, who are going to get up and go to work, and who are working to further their lives.”

Currently, the Salvation Army shelter in Wheeling has 11 beds for men, with a total capacity of 35 people overall at the shelter.

Van Meter said they are working with the W.Va. Department of Corrections to bring yet another program to fruition, allowing the Salvation Army to have parolees — non-violent, non-sexual offenders — begin their parole there. If renovations at the shelter move forward and the partnership with the Department of Corrections is finalized, a similar type of case management scenario will be used to help parolees get re-established back into the community.

“These guys are coming out of jail one way or another,” Van Meter said. “We either support them and help them get established in life, or they become the next set of guys living under the bridges. So we’ve got to do it right.”

Van Meter said the community can help, and the Salvation Army will continue to be on the front line to lead the charge, regardless of the situation.

“We just want people to realize that the Salvation Army is one of those type of agencies that marches in, marches on and marches forward,” he said, noting that the COVID-19 has amplified the needs of the most vulnerable exponentially. “As businesses closed and as local municipalities closed, the Salvation Army stayed open. Homelessness does not go away simply because a pandemic happens.

“My staff showed up every day. As this type of stuff seems to collapse around the community, we’re the type of agency that marches into the battle zone. And we’re happy to do that.”

The Salvation Army’s annual holiday Red Kettle drive has kicked off, and bell ringers will be seen at the entrances of stores throughout the Ohio Valley. Van Meter noted that every dollar in this annual campaign is kept locally.

“Our local Red Kettle campaign goal is $45,000,” Van Meter said. “It has been a tough year on us. At one point during COVID, we went from 200 cases per month in our pantry to 2,000 cases in the month of April. That was a 10-fold increase in our pantry. We have to meet those needs.

“So as you see our bell ringers out and about this Christmas season, give. We need the donor support.”

For more information on the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign or to make a donation online, go to RedKettleNow.com. To make an online donation that goes to the local cause, visit https://give.virginiasalvationarmy.org/campaign/wheeling-red-kettle-challenge/c301155eay.

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