The Salvation Army's lesser known social services

HELPING HAND: The Salvation Army van serves food to the homeless four nights a week.
HELPING HAND: The Salvation Army van serves food to the homeless four nights a week.

If you had to think about the sound of the Salvation Army, would it be the noise of a brass band? Or would you hear the shaking of a donation can? The hymn Onward Christian Soldiers? Maybe the sound of a tardy apology after it opposed homosexual law reform in 1986 is still ringing in your ears?

A more likely soundtrack to the modern Salvation Army might simply be silence. You don't hear much about the Sallies these days, they don't court media. In fact, they are reasonably slow responding to it. But it's not called an army for nothing. It mobilises when needed and when you start looking, it's everywhere.

The Salvation Army is a worldwide evangelical branch of the Christian church with a mission to fight "poverty and social and spiritual distress". They call it "Christianity with its sleeves rolled up".

In Christchurch it has six churches (Belfast, Aranui, Sydenham, Linwood, Moorhouse Ave and Hornby) plus Family Stores selling secondhand items. Less well known might be the array of social services it runs: food banks, supported accommodation, back-to-work training courses, budgeting advice, alcohol, drug and gambling addiction programmes and a van to feed sex workers and the homeless. Its members and volunteers do advocacy work in courts and prisons, counselling and catering in welfare centres. It is a registered charity and stays afloat through donations, its annual Red Shield appeal, Family Stores' profits and winning contracts for service (the most recent being the government's $5 million gambling prevention contract).

It is not the only organisation aiming to create a better society but it is the only one with uniforms and a military structure - its members are known as soldiers and have ranks.

Members do not smoke and are teetotal, saying it would be hypocritical given its alcohol and addiction work. You can be part of the church and drink but if you are a soldier, then it's no drinking, no smoking, no gambling.

Major Mike Allwright is head of the Southern Division with a varied role overseeing community ministries, the social and emergency sector, and earthquake recovery in Christchurch.

He is as good an example as any of how one might come to join the army.

"I was brought up with it but I went away. Then life just went wrong. It was a humbling experience to go from a owning my own business, having a mortgage and everything to having the Sallies turn up with a food package because I needed it. I started to look at my life. I ended up going back to church and the rest is history."

For more than two decades now, he and his wife have been part of "the army".

"We do it because of our faith," he says.

"Do we want you to come to our church? Yes.

"Do we ask you to come in? No. We have an open door policy. If you want to be there, you'll be welcome, if not, that's equally OK too."

Like other religious orders, it has not been without controversy. Last month in Australia, a royal commission heard that youngsters at Salvation Army homes in the 1950s, 60s and 70s had suffered sexual abuse.

The organisation apologised for its "horrible failures" and says it plans to "seek understanding so that such damage can be avoided."

In New Zealand in 1986, it strongly opposed homosexual law reform, apologising only in 2012.

Its annual State of the Nation report looks to review social progress in New Zealand.

Its latest finding called for policy makers and New Zealanders to take child poverty and family violence more seriously.

Just like the military, the Salvation Army loves a good acronym. SOS stands for street outreach services, the mobile van that feeds the homeless four times a week (with an extra night for the city's sex workers). Mainlander visits on a Thursday night to find Captain Shar Davis mixing Raro, laying out cream buns and heating pies in a humble motel room on Bealey Ave.

Food is donated by larger companies, such as Couplands, Wishbone and Verkerks but also small outlets such as the Edgeware KBs, Michael's Cafe in Addington, and occasionally some lady from the hospital across the road.

Davis has developed a sixth sense for what will be sitting on the red plastic trays in the evenings.

"If the bakeries haven't guessed the weather right, we'll have more pies on a hot day. Or more sandwiches if it's been cold. Sometimes we have an excess, sometimes we're scraping the bottom of the barrel."

Davis came to the Salvation Army when she was 10. Her folks were Christian but she had only experienced "prim and proper" church services so she didn't want to go.

"But it was singing and laughing and it captivated me," she says.

She was in her early 20s when she went through the Salvation Army training college in Wellington.

"When you go to training college, you do the pubs., what we call the pub ministries. My first night was in the Rimutaka Tavern, I was a fresh young 23-year-old and they told me to f*** off. But I went back the next night and they treated me like their long-lost daughter. In the end I'd just walk around having a chat and they'd do a bit of collecting. It's about making connections with people. Everybody needs an ear. Everybody."

When the van is loaded, it makes its way down Manchester St pulling over if any sex workers wave it down. It arrives in Latimer Square about 10.15pm.

"They start getting a bit cranky if we're late," Davis says. She knows her patch. An orderly queue has already formed. About 60 people are waiting for a hot drink and a pie or a sandwich.

Until recently, Lynette Tier was a citizen volunteer but she decided to join up and become a soldier.

"It's not so much the religion. It's caring for the underprivileged. A lot of churches do good but this is just really heartening," she says and hands out another pie.

If there are enough volunteers to man the van, Davis can get out and have a chat. She knows many by name and she's broken up fights on more than one occasion.

"We're seeing a growing number of young people. Ones that have run away from CYFS care or just past the age of care.

"You can't sit in judgement. Once you've heard their stories, you see why their life seems

normal. A girl gets attacked on the streets, she's back out working the next night.

"There are reasons they're out working on the streets and sometimes those reasons outweigh the trouble.

"It can be one step forward, two steps back. One young homeless girl, we're supporting her and encouraging her to get a CV together but over time, we're just starting to see the spark in her go out.

"For some of these people, everyone in their lives is take, take, take. This is the only thing that gives without asking anything back."

Her goal is a drop-in centre in the new CBD.

The Salvation Army's training branch is called Employment Plus, bidding for government and tertiary contracts. A separate employment training arm has set up in Christchurch, specific to the rebuild.

Robyn Laurenson heads U Build for the Rebuild. It is open to people who are unemployed, have been made redundant, are looking to expand from part-time or who may have seen opportunity in the rebuild and wish to retrain. The first six-week programme began in June 2012. Now the 13th intake of students (with an average age of 40) is about to graduate.

Laurenson says they are about "quality not quantity" and this can be evinced by impressive statistics - a 98 per cent attendance record and an 80 per cent success rate of graduates getting employment.

The three-part selection phase is tough.

The course started with skills for the "horizontal" rebuild (everything from the ground down) and will shortly start taking people for the new "vertical phase" (above-ground construction).

"I take it quite seriously," she says.

"People raised a lot of money for Christchurch after the earthquake and we want it to mean something.

"It's no easy ride. The course is Monday to Thursday from 7am to 4pm with a half day on Friday so the afternoon is clear to attend interviews and sort benefits.

"We figure if people can do that, there's a fair chance they can hold down a job. And six weeks gives us time to sort out things like transport and childcare."

She has a handful of favourite success stories, one being a man who had been made redundant.

On the first day of class his car was repossessed.

Post-quake bus routes made it impossible for him to reach the Aranui location by 7am but she sourced him a free bicycle through a CDHB programme.

The 13km cycle each day did wonders for his fitness, stress levels and mood.

He graduated the course, got a job in the construction industry and continues to cycle to a job which is even further in distance.

Laurenson is not part of the Salvation Army, she doesn't have a rank, but her investment in the students is clear.

They graduate with skills and certificates in traffic management, and a wheels, tracks, and rollers licence which can raise an employee's hourly wage from about $16 to $18.

"It takes them out of that minimum wage trap and into a potential career."

Roy Parkin and Bill Hicks are tutors with SCIRT. The idea was for them to pop in at the start of each course but they can't keep away.

"You feel really proud of them buggers in there," Parkin says on his second visit for the week.

"I don't mind admitting to getting a wet eye when I see them change. It's just awesome.

"Some of them come in and can barely make eye contact. When they leave . . . oh, it's just amazing."

As Laurenson says: "That's the thing you see. You have got to be independent otherwise you'll be dependent forever.

"We're big on people meeting us halfway. You're not going to get everything on a plate here.

"The program is about teaching them to fish, giving them the rod like the saying goes. Not giving them the fish."

Major Dean Herring is director of the Addington-based supportive accommodation service, a male-only accommodation complex with a total of 83 beds, a mixture of independent flats, shared rooms and a four-bed house for those more capable of looking after themselves.

Herring says 266 men passed through the doors last year.

Men who come to the Addington complex are no longer given a bed for life.

"There's been a change in our direction over the last 12 months. We want to equip people for life. Restore and reintegrate."

Clients are able to stay on site both day and night but there are no longer visiting services such as a barber.

"They have to go out and find these things on their own to keep the men included in as much daily life as possible. Those with mental health issues are encouraged to keep their own care workers and GPs.

"We strive not to institutionalise them, which is a danger. If you start caring for them too much you actually disable them."

The men who come here are referred through mental health services, family, and some "from the other side of the prison bars while they are looking to re-establish in society".

Herring says there is no average stay but "from less than a week, to months and a couple we have had for two years".

"You don't have to be poor to end up here, you know. We have people who have lost their jobs and need support, people who are not sick enough for permanent care but not well enough to care for themselves. It's hard for many people to understand but some people just don't have the capabilities for living.

"There is a sense of fulfilment in what we do but saying it's rewarding sounds almost selfish.

"What really fires me up is people calling them ‘no-hopers'. They might not have had the upbringing you've had, the caring parents you've had. I've heard so many stories over the years. One boy who could run faster backwards than he could forwards because that was he could always keep an eye on his dad and he'd know when to duck.

"They might not have been born with as much grey matter or it was corrupted because they haven't had the benefit of competent parenting.

"Life is pretty tough for some people."

Just around the corner is Major Wendy Barney, the director of Christchurch Addiction Services, known to many as the Bridge programme.

The treatment service for alcohol and drug addictions is an six-week programme in one of its 19 beds followed by two weeks as an outpatient.

Clients are ushered into the programme they think will suit best, whether it is Salvation Army-based or not.

Barney says its addiction service aims to help the person and their family.

It teaches budgeting, relaxation, potential triggers and what to do when life no longer revolves around the pub or other places the addiction occurs.

"Not everybody makes it through. Some just find it too hard or they can't live by our rules. Some are amazing. And some employers are too, allowing a staff member to do the programme while holding their job."

She states categorically that the rising problem in addictions is synthetic cannabis. In the first three months of last year they took 223 referrals. Of these, 6.7 per cent identified cannabis as the main problem. In the same period this year, that number was 315 with 18.4 per cent presenting cannabis as the primary addiction.

"And we firmly believe it reflects the synthetic cannabis issue. People say they are needing several bags at a time and suffer withdrawal after two hours. They are getting into debt, they have intense cravings and it is affecting their violence. Traditional cannabis has a calmer effect, we are seeing people getting violent on it and being addicted from a younger age. It ripples through the whole family. We are getting calls from desperate parents saying ‘please help my teen'."

During all conversations with Mainlander, religion was not brought up unless directly asked and while all members have faith in the church, the addiction centre has a service - even for those who don't believe.

The "recovery church" holds a Monday night service for people who "want to belong to something before they believe".

"A lot of what we do is because of our deep faith but we're not trying to ram it down anyone's throats," Barney says.

"We have a chaplain on site who helps people explore their spirituality. He's great. He gets just as excited by someone saying they're a Christian and just as excited if someone finds spirituality in a rock."

Now the army's Oasis centres for problem gambling has come into the spotlight after winning a contract worth $5 million, previously held by the Problem Gambling Foundation.

It seems the army's ranks may have to swell. Time for more sleeves to be rolled up.



The Salvation Army was founded by William Booth, an ordained Methodist minister, and his wife Catherine in 1865. Their mission was to preach Christianity to the masses. It became known for its determination to improve the situation of the poor and otherwise marginalised.

The Salvation Army spread rapidly from its homeland in England to nearly all parts of the globe and is now in over 125 countries. It was brought to New Zealand in 1883 (extending to cover Fiji in 1973 and Tonga in 1985).

The first Salvation Army work was in Dunedin and within one year, it established 25 Salvation Army centres from Auckland to Invercargill.

It now operates in every town with a population of more than 1500. 

The Press