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Our view: Salvation Army helps more than the homeless

The Salvation Army of Rochester had an extraordinary Red Kettle campaign last year. Due in large part to a two-day dollar-for-dollar match from Mayo Clinic, the campaign raised a record-setting $1.2 million, well above the goal of $950,000.

Thanks are due to Mayo Clinic, which matched the $170,547.41 people put in kettles Dec. 19-20. Kudos to everyone who rang bells and/or dug especially deep into their pockets last year.

After such a successful campaign, you might expect local Salvation Army officers to be almost giddy with excitement, but you'd be wrong.

Yes, Maj. Bob Mueller and Maj. Lisa Mueller are thrilled about the influx of extra cash, but they say the Rochester Salvation Army is grappling with a complex set of problems – and a bit of an identity crisis.

"Everybody knows our reputation and our brand, and that carries us, but most people don't really know what we do," Bob Mueller said Tuesday during a meeting with the Post Bulletin's editorial board. "We're not just about homeless shelters and thrift stores."

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In fact, the Salvation Army has closed both of its Rochester thrift stores due to high operating costs, which means that to many people, the corps now is simply the place where homeless adults can get a free meal, a shower and perhaps a place to take shelter when the temperature plummets.

Lisa Mueller told us that those services are extremely important, but the Salvation Army's ultimate goal is far more ambitious.

"We want to tell the full story of everything else we are doing to prevent homelessness, to prevent people from being evicted or becoming a statistic," she said. "We want to eradicate homelessness through prevention, rather than intervention."

Intervention, unfortunately, is an easier story for the public to understand. We see the homeless sleeping in the skyways, hanging out in the library, or panhandling with signs telling their tales of woe. For years, city and county officials have discussed ways to address behaviors that bring homelessness directly into the vision of Rochester residents and the visitors to our community.

"Homelessness and affordable housing are hot topics in Rochester right now, but it's a much more complicated problem than people realize," Lisa Mueller said. "It's not just a matter of building another apartment complex, building another motel, or opening another emergency shelter."

The Muellers estimated that right now, there could be as many as a couple dozen "unshelterable" homeless adults in Rochester. These are people whose mental health conditions, addictions and criminal backgrounds prevent them from succeeding in even the most supportive housing environments.

The Salvation Army does what it can to help meet their basic needs, but it's a huge challenge.

Then there are those we'll call the "helpable homeless." Recent estimates put Olmsted County's total homeless population near 500, and many of them rely heavily on the Salvation Army for health care, dental care, food and occasional shelter. Without the corps, many of these homeless individuals would be at risk of incarceration or would be in and out of emergency rooms on a regular basis, and the cost to local taxpayers would be massive.

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These "helpable" and "unshelterable" homeless are expensive, high-profile clients for the Salvation Army – but the bigger untold story lies with the other 11,500 individuals the corps serves every year.

That's right. The Salvation Army of Rochester actually helps more than 12,000 people annually. Put another way, the corps serves one out of every 13 residents of Olmsted County.

What help do these people receive? Some families get emergency lodging vouchers for a night or two in a hotel. Others get financial assistance to help pay rent and utilities. Some receive transitional housing assistance in which the Salvation Army works directly with landlords to keep rent affordable. Local youths get free music lessons, after-school programs and summer camp opportunities.

Income tax preparation. Psychiatry services. Free mammograms. Pet therapy. Disaster relief. The list goes on and on.

"When you look at the overall number of people we serve, the homeless are a really small contingent," Lisa Mueller said. "A lot of the focus, the dollars and the energy goes toward the homeless, but we're giving out toys at Christmas. We're feeding people during the holidays. We gave out nearly 1,000 coats this winter. We meet a lot of needs."

So, when you put your spare change or a $10 bill into a red kettle two months ago, that money went in a lot of directions. Yes, some of it helped protect people who will likely never hold a job or function normally in society, but some of it is helping to keep a kid off the streets after school. Some of it will help people get new glasses. Some of it will help people get cavities filled, and some of it will provide adult day care so that a family caregiver can get an afternoon's respite.

In short, the Salvation Army of Rochester provides an extensive safety net to keep people from falling into homelessness – and it also does everything in its power to help those who slip through that net.

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