The White House'e Faith-Based Office Should Help N

Posted: May 30, 2001 12:00 AM
Just on the other side of the Cumberland River from downtown Nashville, Tenn., sits a Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center that the Clinton administration punched in the mouth in 1998. That's when the U.S. Department of Agriculture used its regulatory authority to take away the center's 23-year-long authorization to participate in the Food Stamp program. According to a 1999 letter from Shirley Watkins, then a USDA undersecretary, the center lost use of food stamps -- worth $70,000 per year -- because the USDA wants participating drug or alcohol treatment programs to be state-certified. Center administrator Ken Merrifield, however, says that during the previous 23 years, the center was not certified and should not be, because the Salvation Army is a church and it's not the role of government to be certifying churches. The ruddy-complexioned Major Merrifield, who has a military bearing and a thick thatch of silver hair, says he welcomes reporters and others to come and look around. His center, with its white cinderblock walls and clean linoleum, has 86 beds that are generally filled, and a cafeteria with silk daffodils on 20 four-man tables and silk ficus trees on the floor. Immaculate hallways sport pictures of flying ducks and a recreation room features a widescreen TV, pool table and two Coke machines. The Sally -- as homeless folks often refer to a Salvation Army post -- is not a bad place to be for those who have been down and out. It's also not a place designed to enable residents to stay at the bottom. "This is not an entitlement program," says Merrifield. "The men have to work." The center's work and self-help orientations are clear: Residents "have to go out and hunt for a job, visiting three places or more per day, and they need to get a real job, not one from some Fast Harry who gets them some quick bucks but nothing lasting." The center's religious teaching is not segmented from other parts of the program: "We are what we are 24 hours of the day. There is no separation of religion from rehabilitation." Two-thirds of the men who enter the center's 90-day transitional program finish it with a job in hand and a slowly growing bank account. Merrifield, speaking of food stamps received, says, "The government thinks it's doing us a favor but doesn't compute how much we are saving government, or what kind of havoc there would be if we weren't here." The USDA did create some havoc at the center when it cut off food stamps, forcing the major to lay off one of his two counselors. "I'm from the government, and I'm here to hurt you," is the lesson homeless men absorbed. Correspondence from the USDA's Watkins indicates that the cutoff was discretionary, not mandated by legislative action. At one point in the process, Salvation Army officials thought the USDA action was a response to legislative changes within the food stamp program, and that to regain food stamp use it would have to set up 80 separate cookies facilities for the men at the center. Not so: Watkins' complaint was lack of certification. The Clinton USDA did not seem to care that the Nashville Salvation Army, while opposed to certification, had entered into a letter of agreement with the Tennessee Deptartment of Human Services, by which it always complied with requests to make records or information available for USDA audits. Besides, the long-respected Salvation Army is not likely to let one of its posts sully its reputation; internal quality control standards kick in when things go wrong. Nor is this center a financial high-flyer. Merrifield wears the regulation Salvation Army black tie, and the brown wood-like paneling, blue industrial carpet and pressed board desk of his office -- furniture on sale in the adjacent Salvation Army store is nicer -- suggest a barebones operation. The Nashville center is not the only one hit. Major Larry White, a Salvation Army commander for 15 Southeastern states, reports that the Army -- standing by its religious liberty, no-certification position -- lost use of food stamps and surplus food at other centers during the Clinton administration: Atlanta, Fort Worth, Houston, Jacksonville and Miami were among those cut off. "They are punishing us," he said, referring to Washington bureaucrats. "We've tried to get help with this, but it hits a dead end, and we've never made very much progress." But a new administration is now in place, and it's exactly this type of harassment that the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is designed to stop. We'll watch what happens.