Free housing deals for Salvation Army officers create image problem

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Probably at the bottom of the list of things the millions of donors to the Salvation Army expect of those running the charity's programs would be arrogance and a cushy lifestyle.

If you're one of those donors, the purchases of two homes in Massachusetts for Salvation Army officers and the comments by a resident of one might change that perspective.

The Salvation Army, a religious organization best known for helping the homeless and addicted, does not lavish great wealth upon its officers. But as part of its compensation package, it does provide them with housing.

A story by the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette done in conjunction with Boston University's New England Center for Investigative Reporting showed the practice can create some serious image problems at a time when charities are battling over a shrunken pool of donations.

First, we'll start with Divisional Commander Major William Bode. He and his wife Major Joan Bode (Salvation Army officers share the same ranks as their wives, who also serve the organization) live in a $900,000 home in Needham, Mass. Nice.

Then there's Major Michael Copeland, who, by his own account, repeatedly pushed property limits set for him in the Worcester area until settling on a four bedroom, two and a half bath home in suburban Holden, Mass., for $350,000 (pictured above). When the basement and garage are added in (per the organization's policy), the home's 3,800 square feet exceeds the 3,000 square foot cap permitted by the Salvation Army's own rules.

Not only did the good major push his organization to move the bar higher because he didn't want the property that was available for less, but in the process he delivered a host of insults to the people who live in the community that actually houses his facilities -- Worcester. And, he made it clear that he wanted to put some space between him and the people he is "serving."

"You work with people who are very troubled for many hours a week. You need a place where you can kind of get away from things, recoup. So when you come back you're renewed and refreshed," Major Copeland told the Telegram & Gazette. "Because of some of the people we deal with, often we're not sure of their backgrounds. We certainly don't want to be so accessible that somebody shows up on our front door in the middle of the night."

Then, Copeland told the newspaper that the city's schools were not suitable for the families of Salvation Army officers. (As chance would have it, I reside in Worcester, where my children attend city schools along with the children of doctors, lawyers, real estate moguls and hard-working people of a variety of occupations -- but apparently no one from the Salvation Army.)

Worcester, the second most populous city in New England, has some hardscrabble neighborhoods but also plenty of areas with quiet, comfortable residential streets.

The comments created a backlash, which national Salvation Army spokesman Major George Hood said was understandable. "That's a fair gut reaction," he told WalletPop.

The comments, he said, don't fit with the general nature of those who serve the group.

"That's a personal bias that's he obviously holding. It's not the norm nor the policy of the Salvation Army," said Hood, who has served for 40 years. "We have many officers who chose to live right in the heart of the ghettos or difficult communties or neighborhoods because that's what they were called to do."

It is typical, he said, for Salvation Army officers to live in the communities they serve and become part of those communities.

"It's an unfortunate comment for sure," Hood said. "We're called to service in a community. We move in. That's who were are. That's why we do what we do."

As for the housing situation, he said that has been an issue when new home purchases are made because costs in some areas are out of sync with other parts of the country. But, Hood pointed out, it is far more common for the Salvation Army to have owned and held a home for many years than to shop around for new ones.

The idea of the policy is to provide housing to Salvation Army families as they are shuffled from one location to another. The homes are fully furnished so when a family is transferred they need only pack their personal belongings, Hood said.

He said Salvation Army officers are paid a nominal amount of money for their work on top of the housing and transportation that's provided. Hood said his 40 years of service rates him an income of about $18,000 on top of those benefits.

"That's what I live on," he said. "It's a business model that has worked for us for a very, very long time." Hood said in all his years of service he has never had to buy a new home.

"There's always been a home there and it's always been perfectly adequate," he said.
Officers must accept the furnishings in the home they are transferred to unless they have reached their life expectancy, Hood said.

He noted that money to buy the properties does not come from donations to the red kettles or from the sales of donated goods at thrift shops, he said. The cash comes from unrestricted donations, typically from wills, and generally stays in the same community.

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