Salvation Army ends homeless meal program, groups scramble to find replacement

Photo by: Sarah King
Photo by: Sarah King
Photo by: Fadel Allassan

Fadel Allassan, Print News Editor

Greg Espinosa is used to skipping meals, not only because he’s homeless and can seldom afford a proper meal, but also because he says God tells him to.

“Like the lord said, it’s good to fast for one meal of the day, so I take the morning to fast and skip breakfast,” Espinosa said.

Espinosa said because he doesn’t eat in the mornings, he was hardly affected when the Salvation Army stopped serving breakfast as one of its three daily meals on Jan. 27.

Citing an increase in violent incidents, the nonprofit’s leadership said it will cut dinner on Feb. 8, as it phases out the meal program in anticipation for a complete shutdown on Feb. 27.

Matt Pochily, a Salvation Army spokesperson, said a series of violent incidents have led the Salvation Army to cut the meal program entirely.

Pochily said in one incident a homeless person being served food shattered the window at the Salvation Army’s West Grace St. facility. He said in another incident, a drunken man receiving a meal cussed out a volunteer. Altogether, Pochily claims the nonprofit has made 15 calls to the police since its meal program was initiated in 2013.

“Over the past year we have conducted a review of our meals program and we realized that the meal service was being executed at a cost to the services we were able to provide to our shelter residents,” Pochily said. “Additionally it was an increasing number of calls we had to make to police regarding threats and violence that were taking place during the meals service.”

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Pochily said the Salvation Army’s meals program is the largest in the area and the only one that provides daily meals.

Sababu Sanyika, a member of the homeless advocacy group A Society Without A Name (ASWAN) and VCU student who labels himself homeless, said he frequents the Salvation Army’s meal services. Sanyika said he has observed some incidents that he believes were out of hand.

“You have a lot of people who have been dispossessed all these years, some of them have substance abuse issues. You’re gonna have those kinds of problems in that population,” Sanyika said. “Its unfortunate that people cause issues that harm their own ability to access services.”

Another ASWAN member, Jess Izen, said although they recognize the Salvation Army’s concern, the situation could have been handled differently.

“Its unfortunate that the Salvation Army feels unable to deal with individuals causing issues and is cutting services altogether. When you map that against plans that involve displacing providers from Monroe Park, the number of places providing food, there’s a squeeze,” Izen said. “Its worrying to us that all these spaces that are homes to people on the streets are starting to close down.”

Pochily, however, said the Salvation Army had tried to deal with individual issues by asking those who caused problems not to return to the facility. As the number of incidents increased, however, Pochily said the nonprofit decided it was unwilling to risk the possibility of harm to its volunteers or property damages.

In addition to the calls to police, Pochily pointed to the organization being understaffed, consequently requiring volunteers to run the program. This was only supposed to be a temporary solution to the Conrad Center closing, he said.

The Conrad Center was a permanent homeless shelter managed by the social services organization Freedom House. The Conrad Center closed in 2013 when, according to CBS 6, its board could no longer financially support the building.

The Salvation Army shelter in Richmond provides several services including employment, education and addiction treatment for about 60 residents. Pochily said the organization’s meals program may have come at a bit of a cost to its primary mission: giving homeless people tools to be able to get on their feet and provide for themselves.

“We’re looking to provide transformational services and programs, I really mean things that people people who participate in Salvation Army programs or services can really take with them,” Pochily said. “So it isn’t come to a line, receive something and leave — it’s education, knowledge, skills that they are able to take with them.”

In anticipation for the meals program’s imminent shutdown, the Salvation Army and ASWAN are scrambling to find a replacement.

Izen said operations will be handled by several alternating churches in the short-term, but a long-term volunteer group or solution is still unclear.

Sanyika said he blames the uncertain situation on the city government and social service group Homeward, which he said should have stepped forward to provide meals in 2013 when the Conrad Center closed.

“The failure is in Homeward. As officials representatives of the city of the Richmond’s homeless situation, Homeward should have jumped on providing the meals when the conrad center closed,” Sanyika said.

Pochily said that the Salvation Army made the Department of Social Services and ASWAN aware of their plans to discontinue its meals program, but neither have given any indication that they look to provide a stopgap or long term access to food for the homeless.

Members of ASWAN said they also reached out to the ranking members of the Department of Social Services and Homeward, but neither made clear of any intentions to provide any sort of meals service.

Homeward or the Department of Social Services could not be reached for comment.

Print News Editor, Fadel Allassan

Fadel Allassan, photo by Brooke MarshFadel is a sophomore print journalism major. He is fluent in English, French and Sarcasm, and he probably doesn’t like you. Fadel enjoys writing about politics and making people drive him to Cook-Out. // Facebook | LinkedIn

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