174 State of Homelessness: How The Salvation Army Is Responding with Colonel Mike Dickinson

174 State of Homelessness: How The Salvation Army is responding with Lt. Colonel Mike Dickinson

More than 400,000 people were homeless last year. That’s a record high, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

To put that number in perspective, that’s roughly enough people to fill Michigan Stadium, the largest stadium in the U.S., not once but four times.

And many experts agree even that figure might be an undercount.

Despite pouring billions of dollars into shelter beds and support services, cities across the country are struggling to keep up with the demand.

That’s especially true on the West Coast, where encampments are ubiquitous and housing costs continue to skyrocket. In the Greater LA area, which, according to some experts, has become Ground Zero for homelessness, several new projects are taking aim at the issue.

The Salvation Army recently launched two.

The first is in Anaheim, the Center of Hope. It includes a low-barrier emergency shelter, permanent supportive housing apartments, and on-site medical and dental care.

The other is in Pasadena, the Diane and John Mullin Hope Center with housing, social services operations, even a new client-choice food pantry.

In these new projects, and the existing ones across Southern California, the goal is to help end chronic homelessness in the community and transform the lives of those who come in.

As we begin our series exploring the state of homelessness, Lt. Colonel Mike Dickinson, Divisional Commander for The Salvation Army in Southern California, is here today to tell us more about what The Salvation Army is doing to chip away at the crisis, and why.

Show highlights include:

  • Overview of the current homelessness situation in the Greater Los Angeles area.
  • Why fighting homelessness is an important area of ministry for The Salvation Army.
  • Personal experience in this arena and what has stuck through the years.
  • How The Salvation Army is fighting homelessness in Southern California.
  • More about two significant initiatives to combat homelessness in the area.
  • Insight into the long-term vision for these projects and how they fit into the broader strategy of The Salvation Army’s efforts to address homelessness.
  • Opportunities to get involved in the work The Salvation Army is doing to combat homelessness.

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Christin Thieme: Lt. Colonel Mike Dickinson, thank you so much for joining us today on the Do Gooders Podcast.

Lt. Colonel Mike Dickinson: Thank you, Christin. It’s great to be with you today.

Christin Thieme: Absolutely. We are kicking off looking at the state of homelessness with you on this episode today. We’ve been running through some of the bigger issues that The Salvation Army addresses, looking at hunger and so forth, and today, we’re starting in on looking at the issue of homelessness. So I’m wondering if you can start there and let’s pretend somebody on the street stopped you, you’re in uniform, and said, “What is going on with homelessness?” How would you respond to that? What’s the current state of homelessness in our country and in the area where you specifically are appointed now?

Lt. Colonel Mike Dickinson: Sure. I’d probably ask that person how much time they have, and we could have a great conversation. Homelessness is a very complicated issue. As the divisional commander for Southern California at Ground Zero with our headquarters here in Los Angeles and the significant amount of homelessness that we have, so maybe I just start with the 2023 point-in-time count, the homeless count done by Greater Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. And so, in 2023, there was a 9% increase in homelessness in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. So in any given night in LA County, more than 75,000 individuals are unhoused. So we have a problem. We all know we have a problem. We see it as we drive around town. We know that in the City of Los Angeles, more than 46,000 people experience homelessness. And so it’s a city problem, it’s a county problem, and indeed it goes across the nation.

This year’s increases to 2023 point in time increases were smaller increases than previous years. And so there would be some that would look at that and say, “Well, our increases are getting smaller. That’s a good thing.” And I would agree that’s a good thing. But 46,000 people in the City of Los Angeles, 75,000 in the county, those are people’s mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. These are individuals created in the image of God who don’t have a place to lay their head. So we recognize that we have a problem. So The Salvation Army in the City of Los Angeles, we provide about 2,000 nights of lodging every night. We have about 2,000 beds available and, throughout Southern California, more than 5,000 as we try to help our neighbors in need with this issue. It’s an extensive problem. There are lots of causes to homelessness.

There are many reasons why an individual becomes homeless. So if I was asked that question, why are people homeless? What’s the issue? If you give me 10 homeless people, there’s a hundred reasons why those 10 homeless people don’t have a place. It runs the entire gamut. A large majority have an addiction issue. And so it’s not that they have a homelessness issue. It’s that they have an addiction issue, and we need to help them with that, which is why we have a great partnership with The Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center programs. So that’s an issue. There are so many that have a mental health diagnosis that goes untreated. And so we need to help individuals with that. There are affordable housing issues. There’s job readiness. There’s government policies that I think are misaligned that would be a cause of this.

And then, for a very small majority of those people, there’s a personal responsibility. It’s just that issue of responsibility. But that’s not the lion’s share. Most people don’t want to live this life. They just don’t know any other way. They’ve lost a job, they’ve had a medical bill, they’ve made a bad decision, they had significant traumas most if not all of their life, and here they are. So the question is, for compassionate people both in The Salvation Army and as citizens in the United States of America, how do we deal with that? And I’m happy today to share a little bit about how our division and LA specifically is dealing with the homelessness crisis and how we’re helping our neighbors who are unhoused.

Christin Thieme: Well, like you said, it’s an issue that we all know exists that we see across the nation, not in any one community. The Salvation Army serves some 24 million people a year in the United States. And one of the things I love about the Army is that, in each community, it’s able to meet the needs of that community. And there’s a lot of flexibility for really fitting that need, whatever it might be, in each place. But we know that fighting homelessness is one of the things that we do everywhere. So if we were to zoom out a little bit, why is this particular area such an important ministry for The Salvation Army?

Lt. Colonel Mike Dickinson: I’m happy to chat about that, but I’m going to go back to what you just said because it’s a really important point that The Salvation Army’s DNA is that we will go into a community and meet individual’s needs as presented to us without discrimination based upon that community’s ability to support the work. And so I do love that about the Army. We are so unique in that we are highly bureaucratic, highly organized. We have Army in our name. We have headquarters and command structures, and yet we give that flexibility and that autonomy to a local community. If there’s a need The Salvation Army can meet that The Salvation Army is willing to do that based upon that community’s desire and willingness to support it.

And I just think that’s such a unique and wonderful part of our organization, so much autonomy and yet so much rigidness in an organization. And that’s good, right. We need structure. We need policy. So I think that’s wonderful. So why is fighting homelessness such an important part the ministry in The Salvation Army? It goes back to our founding. It goes back to the story of William Booth and Bramwell Booth and Bramwell asking his father, “Dad, there’s people under that bridge, and they’re cold, and they’re hungry.” And William Booth simply saying, “Son, do something. Do something.” And The Salvation Army has carried that on since our founding, since those very early days of doing something.

But the quote doesn’t stop at do something. William Booth actually said, “Do something, help them, but don’t coddle them.” And so we need to do something to help people to give them that hand up, but also to expect that they’re going to work and be a participant in this process. And most people that we serve absolutely are just trying to get from point A to point B, and we want to help them along that way. So it goes back to our very beginning, and it goes back to that DNA in The Salvation Army. Another story of our founding is that William Booth said, “An individual, a person created in the image of God, should have the same things that a cab horse has.”

Of course, a cab horse pulling the buggy through the streets of Victorian England, they had gainful employment. That cab horse had gainful employment, they had adequate shelter, that horse was well cared for, and they had sufficient food. And doesn’t an individual deserve that same opportunity? And so those things for my officership and I think my colleagues, we look at this issue, and say, “These aren’t bums. These aren’t worthless individuals and addicts that have no desire to change.” We look at them as created in God’s image and say, “What can we do? How can we help provide for them? How do we help with this idea of adequate food and gainful employment and decent shelter? What do we do? How do we help that? What do we make that?”

So that really becomes the answer to why do we fight homelessness. Why do we work on this issue? Why are we so involved in the trenches is because we don’t see addicts or we don’t see homeless, we don’t see people. We see God’s image. And when we look at an individual, we see the face of God. And because of that and because of our faith, we look at that person and say, “There’s hope for you. Come and let us show you the way. Let us give you a bowl of soup. Let us give you a place to rest your head where you could sleep maybe soundly and peacefully for the first time because you’re not worried that your belongings will be stolen. You’re not worried about getting raped. You know that you are safe and secure.”

And some individuals come through that experience of that physical, which then becomes emotional and mental stability quite quickly and move on to job training and then finding a job and then finding a place that they can afford and having that independence. Some people do that very quickly. And for others that grew up in a home where abuse was rampant, whether it was physical or emotional, whether it was drugs and alcohol abuse that a child grows up into and then begins using themselves and then has this cycle of trauma upon trauma, upon trauma, upon trauma.

For some of those individuals, it takes them months and, in some cases, years for us to help them work through. But we do so, and we’re committed to it because we see the face of God in them. So that’s why it’s important, that’s why The Salvation Army is so involved in this issue is because we see the face of God, and we know that every individual has value and has worth. Not because we say so, not because the government says so, but because God says, “They’re created in my image.”

Christin Thieme: I mean, that’s kind of a mic drop moment right there, but there’s so much more I want to cover with you, so we won’t stop there. I know it’s something that you personally are committed to as well. Can you tell us a little bit, as a Salvation Army officer, somebody who has committed to serving in ministry as a pastor, what’s been your own experience in this area? Is there any particular story or instance that’s really stuck with you when it comes to addressing this need of people who don’t have a place to call home?

Lt. Colonel Mike Dickinson: One of the things I often will share, especially with advisory board members and The Salvation Army volunteers, donors, The Salvation Army, but also with our employee team members wanting them to… You know, you might be a finance clerk, but I want you to understand the heart of why we do what we do, why you’re processing those bills for that new shelter or depositing income. One of the greatest privileges of my life is being a Salvation Army officer. And let me tell you why that is. It is not uncommon for a Salvation Army officer to be with an individual on the worst day of their life. People trust us, respect the uniform, the brand, the name of The Salvation Army. Thank you, those that went before us and have given us this reputation.

And so an individual would come, and we would put our arm around an individual and have a cup of coffee on what is often the worst day. They just have no other hope, whether it’s addiction or a mental health issue or a job or whatever the issue is. And we get that privilege of sitting there face-to-face and bringing a glimmer of hope, a path to self-sufficiency and to transformation. We get to do that, and it’s such a privilege and sacred thing that I hold dear. And then an hour later, I would find myself sitting with the mayor, board of supervisors, or the captain of some industry, some leader from our community, some CEO or business owner, the who’s who in that community. Who gets to do that?

But a Salvation Army officer has this great privilege where we are with this person on their worst day and an hour later can sit with the, quote, most successful and tell the story. What I’ve learned over the years is not only that is a sacred privilege and responsibility that we have and I hold dear, but those two individuals have the exact same needs. They both need housing. They both need food. They both think gainful employment. They both need healthcare. They both want somebody to look them in the eyes, somebody to know their name. We crave human touch because God created us for community, and it’s that homeless individual that doesn’t get that.

But even the most successful have those same exact needs. The only difference in that spectrum, the only difference between the two is really their address. It’s where they live. They’re human beings. And so they crave this. And so I counted a great privilege to be a Salvation Army officer and to get to do that, right. Who else gets to do that? That I get to sit with the owner of a national football team or the mayor of the City of Los Angeles or the governor of a state, or the head of a foundation and tell our story an hour after I’ve held the hand of a person who thought that today might be their last day on Earth, but for the work of The Salvation Army, they have hope, and they see a path. I think that’s a wonderful thing. And to recognize they both crave the same things. It’s an uncommon privilege. I want to tell you one other quick story.

Early in our officership, my wife and I were in a community in central California, and we’d been there for a couple of years and we had a large feeding program. So we’d fed about 150 homeless individuals a day every day at our corps. And we had a very robust social services department where we’re doing a lot of preventive type work. And after a couple of years in that appointment, one of the city council members came to me and said, “I’d like to open a new shelter. We don’t have enough shelter beds in our community; will The Salvation Army partner? And I’m really taking this on as a personal thing as a city council member. It’s not a city initiative. I want to do this. Would you come and help me?”

And we said yes. And so we worked our way through this process with this city council member, funding and secured a building and land, and we were able to receive things like beds from a closed Air Force base and all of the things. So this is a couple month process of working our way through and then helping get funding and all of the things. And during that time, my oldest child was in early elementary school, and one day, the teacher had asked, “Does anybody have anything they’d like to share?” And he said to his teacher, “I miss my dad. My dad hasn’t been home a lot lately, and I miss him, but he’s trying to help open a new shelter where there would be a hundred people that don’t have a place to sleep. They’d have a place to sleep, but I miss my dad.”

So his teacher told us this had happened. And I was grateful to know that we had been talking our children through this process, why I’m not at home for months, spending my evenings trying to get this going. And the first night that shelter opened, we had 80 beds for men, 20 for women. Every bed was full. We fed them dinner and when it was lights out, I sat down in a chair in this big open room with men on one side and women on another, and the chorus began, and that chorus was a hundred people snoring, breathing heavy, and enjoying maybe their first peaceful rest. And I sat there in the dark in that chair, and I cried tears of joy, gratefulness to God and a community that wanted to help The Salvation Army help our neighbors.

And then I was able to… Cindy and I were able to take our children to the shelter frequently to give out little gifts, go on Christmas Day, hand out cookies that we had baked as a family and those opportunities to bring them along. And at that very young tender age, having our children understand the work of The Salvation Army and that these are real individuals that we as a family have helped provide a place to sleep. And I was really meaningful as a young Salvation Army officer to have that experience. And I’m very grateful.

Christin Thieme: As of 2022, 30% of all people in the US experiencing homelessness live in California. So being the leader of The Salvation Army in Southern California, specifically, can you give us a little bit of a preview, a little overview of how The Salvation Army is fighting homelessness in this region specifically?

Lt. Colonel Mike Dickinson: So The Salvation Army in Southern California, as has happened in much of the Western Territory, had a great expanse of our shelter programs over the last couple of years. Really, since 2020, we’ve really expanded a lot of emergency shelters and opened up new bridge housing and transitional housing and permanent supportive housing. And so we have an incredibly robust homeless services department in Southern California. And daily, we remind ourselves it’s not a bureaucracy that we’re working through. It’s not some of the struggles. It’s reminding ourselves we’re providing care for those on the fringes of society. So we need to keep our eye on the ball, right. Why are we doing this, and how do we work through some of those challenges so that we can continue to do that for more and more people? So that’s the heart of The Salvation Army, and that’s what we’re doing in Southern California. But we also believe in a holistic approach.

And so it’s not just about a shelter bed. That’s not what we’re interested in, although having a place for a person to lay their head for the first time and sleep well is a really important thing, and that’s step one. We’re so proud of that opportunity, but it’s a holistic approach. So it’s first meeting that physical need and helping people rest. It’s that emotional and mental state of helping individuals get to a place where some of the cobwebs are clearing and then understanding do they need treatment? Do they need help from a professional? Do they need to go into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center program? And our partnership with the ARC [Adult Rehabilitation Centers] in Southern California with six locations, and so we’re able to help individuals. But we’ve opened up extensive housing, and we have them all over Southern California—Santa Ana, Buena Park, Anaheim, we’re all over Orange County, Tustin as well.

We have the City of Bell and Santa Fe Springs. We have five shelters in Los Angeles. We have Glendale and Whittier and Pasadena, Wilmington, Watts, right, all over Southern California. Significant sheltering in Ventura, in Santa Barbara, San Bernardino County, and indeed in San Diego County all throughout. So The Salvation Army is on the front lines of helping individuals move to self-sufficiency, but we don’t do it alone, right. We’re not the be-all and end-all. It does take government cooperation and partnership. It takes partnership with other nonprofit agencies. We’re not perfect at everything. We don’t know everything. And so we partner a lot with, say, mental health for them to come in and help us and other agencies that provide things that is really their expertise. And so we have that. So The Salvation Army is so involved in this collaborative work, and we’re so proud to partner with so many wonderful people.

There’s really three things that take place for an individual to receive help from The Salvation Army. They present themselves with a need. So an individual has to be willing to say, “I need help. I’m here.” They show up. And throughout the process, they have to willingly continue to show up to be a part of the process. It takes a committed staff, right. Officers, employee, team members, volunteers. It takes a committed individual, educated, trauma-informed, willing to do the hard work with an individual. And then it takes supporters, it takes donors, it takes foundations and government, in some sense, individual philanthropists. Those three things have to come together in this unique setting. We have a couple of new programs. So we recently opened up the Center of Hope in Anaheim, which is a 72-bed permanent supportive housing complex. So on this grounds in Anaheim, there’s a 325-bed emergency shelter.

We’ve just completed the 72-bed permanent supportive housing and opened that late this summer. And then we also have an Adult Rehabilitation Center on the same property. So, as individuals come into that emergency shelter off the streets, we’re able to do that initial round of intake of helping individuals. It might just be that they just need to have a place to sleep and have some food to eat and take a shower for a week. But as we work with an individual, what are those issues that have led to their homelessness? And then how can we help them? If it’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation, we walk them across the way to the Adult Rehabilitation Center. And as individuals are ready, then we are able to move them into that permanent supportive housing. So it’s a wonderful facility that was a really a public-private partnership that The Salvation Army entered into, and it’s going to make a significant difference in Orange County.

Thousands of individuals’ lives are going to be transformed, and we are going to help people move from homelessness into permanent supportive housing or stable housing on their own thousands of individuals every year and this is a key component of that. We’re so proud of that facility and the continued work that’s taking place in Orange County. It’s just going to be a great model.

And we also recently opened up the John and Diane Mullin Hope Center in Pasadena, which is another permanent supportive housing in Pasadena four residents of Pasadena. And we did that in partnership with many wonderful donors. The Mullins are great friends of The Salvation Army, and they just have been so generous to allow us to build that facility. But we did it in partnership also with the City of Pasadena, with LA County. We’ve just been really, really proud of that. So that’s a 65-unit permanent supportive housing.

The first floor is a client-choice food pantry. And so we’re really moving away from those days of, Christin, you come in and say, “I’m hungry,” and we do a little intake, and we give you a food box. We tell you what to eat, right. We’ve really gone to that client choice model of taking an individual in need and we’re really letting them shop. And, of course, there’s parameters, but we allow people to take. If I don’t eat beans or know how to cook beans that are not from a can, then I don’t want to give you beans, or if I have an allergy or whatever it might be. And so that client choice food pantry on that first floor, we have significant number of offices for case managers and housing navigators, mental health. It’s just a wonderful opportunity. And then three floors with those 65 units, it’s really going to do the same thing.

It’s very similar to what’s happening in Orange County. Both of these permanent supportive housing programs coming online in August and September of 2023. And so they’re operating well. We check in with them regularly and are really proud of the work that’s being done in both of those communities. And so those are great opportunities for The Salvation Army, and we’re proud of that. It’s not any one thing is a part of the important story here. It is emergency shelter. It is transitional housing. It is permanent supportive housing and meeting an individual where they’re at. It’s not about the agency. It’s not about a list of things. I want to check boxes. So what are your needs? And then, how do we help you go from point A to point B?

Christin Thieme: It was really exciting to see those two new programs open in the past year. And as you said, The Salvation Army covers the map across Southern California, which is great. It really does, as you also said, take that partnership. So for those who are listening who really want to get involved specifically in this issue of helping The Salvation Army fight homelessness, what opportunities are there? Where would you point someone who wants to get involved?

Lt. Colonel Mike Dickinson: First of all, if you know of the local Salvation Army in your community, please go there. We love to have visitors and people showing up saying, “I want to help. I want to be a part of the solution.” So that’s a great way. Certainly, in the digital age, folks can go to our website, socal.salvationarmy.org. We have a volunteer button on the main page, and so individuals could click on that. It would tell them what Salvation Army services are in their area. They could make contact and begin to go through a process there.

So we do need individuals that are willing to help with some of the labor, right, some of the packing food boxes or volunteering to work in one of our food pantries or those kinds of things. We do need that help. We also need individuals that want to see a difference and have the means to make donations to that. And so those individuals that say, “You know what? I like what I’ve heard. I think you are part of the solution.”

And so they can write that check. They can go online and make that donation on our website. They can walk into a Salvation Army office and say, “I want to make a difference.” And so we need those individuals. So go to the website. It’d be the first start and then making contact with The Salvation Army in your community, telling us a little bit of your story and why do you want to be involved, and why do you want to help, and then how can we do that together.

That’d be a wonderful thing. We would be so grateful. The last couple of years, fundraising has struggled as we’ve living through this economy with the inflationary period. Certainly, last year, in the economy as we continue to come out of the pandemic and our economy is trying to figure it out. Some of our fundraising hasn’t done as well as we need it to do. And so those individuals that do have the means that could help The Salvation Army, we would be very grateful.

Christin Thieme: There is a place for you. All right. Well, Colonel Dickinson, thank you so much for sharing today and for really the heart behind your work and giving us a little picture into that today. Thank you.

Lt. Colonel Mike Dickinson: Thank you, Christin. Have a good day.

Additional resources:

  • See how The Salvation Army fights homelessness.
  • You’ve probably seen the red kettles and thrift stores, and while we’re rightfully well known for both…The Salvation Army is so much more than red kettles and thrift stores. So who are we? What do we do? Where? Right this way for Salvation Army 101.
  • Get on the list for Good Words from the Good Word and get a boost of inspiration in 1 minute a day with a daily affirmation from Scripture list this sent straight to your inbox. It’s an email to help you start your day with goodness.

Listen and subscribe to the Do Gooders Podcast now.

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