Corps Expands Reach, Services in Baltimore

Like any major city, Baltimore, Maryland, has had its share of struggles: lack of affordable housing, concentrated pockets of poverty and a negative national reputation. But it’s also got a small-town vibe in that when someone is introduced in conversation, his new acquaintance will often ask: Where did you go to school? It’s not a college reference, but a high school one – there is a direct connection among locals to the neighborhood in which they live and grew up. “It is this strong sense of belonging that anchors individuals to this city,” said Major Gene Hogg, area commander.

Most of the nation watched as riots rose up in Baltimore in 2015, horrifying and reminding everyone just how heated a divided city can become. While onlookers and the media termed the division “racially motivated,” in actuality, Major Hogg said the issues stem more from a longstanding distrust between the citizens and the city’s police force. Yet The Salvation Army has long held a firm imprint in Baltimore, and since last spring’s riots, that imprint is undergoing an even more robust renaissance through community partnerships and innovative neighborhood outreach.

In addition to Catherine’s Cottage, a safehouse for trafficking survivors set to open in late summer 2016, the Army is offering solutions that meet real needs in the communities where it serves. Capitalizing on something the Army has traditionally done very well – food service – The Central Maryland Area Command has proposed a solution to one of the biggest casualties of the Baltimore rioting in 2015.

“During the riots, we had our canteens providing (food) to victims and first responders,” said Major Hogg. “We saw the results of the plundering by a handful of individuals. Many small grocers were permanently put out of business and this exasperated the food desert that already existed in East and West Baltimore.”

The innovative solution goes beyond a food pantry or emergency disaster services. Even while the command was delivering food bags following the riots, Major Hogg said he knew there had to be a more permanent fix. “There were long lines and for the next two weeks we delivered over 1,000 bags to the inner city of Baltimore; although this met the immediate need, we could not sustain the effort and it did not solve the problem,” he said. “Through God’s intervention, we decided to open a grocery store that would bring dignity to our clients and quadruple their buying power – providing a consistent supply of healthy food.”

The grocery store – which will be called DMG Foods (short for the organization’s Doing the Most Good brand promise) – definitely originated out of divine inspiration. “A lot of the mom and pop stores where people were accessing foods in the neighborhoods were looted and they didn’t have insurance after the riots,” said Major Hogg. “So after the riots we were taking 150 bags a day of groceries into these areas. We just could not sustain that – we were the only non-government agency out there serving. We had been trying to figure out what to do. One night after prayer and fasting, God woke me up and said, ‘I want you to open a grocery store.’”

He knew it was an outside-the-box idea, but as he began sharing it with key Salvation Army leaders, it was accepted. Here’s how it will work:

The Salvation Army will purchase food in bulk from the local food banks. Then, that bulk food will be broken into smaller packaging and sold at a severely reduced priced in the neighborhoods where there is a food desert. Instead of being brought to a warehouse or a food pantry, though, residents will be treated as they would in any grocery store. Major Hogg wants people to have restored dignity as well as a renovation of healthy eating options.

“Our goal is to quadruple their spending power – they can come in four times a week to buy food at such a lower price that they (don’t need to buy once a month in large quantities only to have no money left at the end of the month).”

Other highlights of the model will include cooking demos that include recipes to be given to shoppers and a dry goods barrel that comes free with any purchase. “They could go in and buy some sauce and a pack of chicken and they could get a pound of pasta, beans and rice which would be free with purchase, so that woman with just two dollars a day can cook a meal for her family. We’re going to merchandise it so they feel like they are in a grocery store,” he added.

That store space came available when a woman with a huge heart realized her idea wouldn’t work in the inner city of Baltimore. She’d opened a Whole Foods store in the middle of the East Baltimore food desert, hoping to help residents see the value of healthy food. Because of the price point at which she had to buy the food, her business didn’t last long. Major Hogg pointed out that people who grow up in a food desert don’t eat organic chicken or whole grain pasta. But to the advantage of The Salvation Army’s DMG Foods, the company that loaned her money to buy the equipment sold it at a deeply discounted price – the resale value was $150,000, and the Army was able to buy it (everything from security system and cash registers to rotisserie ovens, meat counters and produce displays) for a mere $40,000.

One of the reasons Colonel William Mockabee thinks these new ideas are being so warmly received is the passion – and the community partners – behind them. He commended Major Hogg and Major Art Penhale for their vision and passionate communication of these real solutions to very real problems.

The director for Catherine’s Cottage has just been hired, and the command is partnering with 70 designers, builders and contractors – because of Major Rebecca Hogg’s zeal for the safehouse – to renovate and landscape a donated house that will serve as the safe haven that survivors of commercial sexual exploitation need.

Another silver lining rising from what could be construed as clouds in Baltimore is a transfer of use from the Christian Services of Howard County to the Salvation Army. What was the main non-government social services hub of Howard County was run by someone who knew she was aging out and needed to pass on her 50-year legacy in the community. But she had trouble finding a successor; that’s when the Baltimore Area Command stepped in.

Because the woman and her prayer partner were consistently seeking God on the matter, they came up with an idea. They would go to the website of a Christian company they trusted, Chick-fil-A, and see who they partnered with. On that site, the woman noticed that Chick-fil-A gave money to the Red Shield and she knew immediately that The Salvation Army was where she wanted her legacy to be passed.

She wanted to pass along her thrift store with its 27 churches’ worth of volunteers, clothing and merchandise donations and building, but the main problem was that the Salvation Army already runs something similar through the Adult Rehabilitation Centers. So a solution was worked out – the transfer was made, and the Howard County social services entity now picks up whatever donations the ARC can’t use and vice versa. The new site brings in an additional $1,800 a day. “We turn that right around to social services, so The Salvation Army has become the lead agency now for social services in Howard County. We were renting a building and now we own one; it’s valued at over nine hundred thousand dollars,” said Major Hogg.