Salvation Army diverts families from shelter with pilot program

Salvation Army diverts families from shelter with pilot program

Raising a child is tough, and even more so when you don’t have a place to stay.

“I was having problems with my mom, so I was going from friend’s house to friend’s house,” Mary Savannah said. “Then, recently, in May, (my son’s) dad took his life, so that was kinda hard.”

The Salvation Army is offering a spot for Savannah and her son, Stiles.

They are one of about 24 families for whom the shelter has room, but with limited capacity and demand only increasing, Salvation Army social services executive director Melissa Sorensen said the shelter has to turn down about five families every night.

“We want to be able to keep those beds available for someone who literally has nowhere else to go,” Sorensen said.

Through a pilot diversion program started in January, a Salvation Army case manager works with families seeking shelter to see if they can stay with friends or family, perhaps by offering a grocery voucher or assurance that the stay will be temporary.

“(We) really try to problem-solve when they think they don’t have a choice, but they might,” she said.

Since the start of the year, Sorensen said, the Salvation Army was able to divert about 122 families, which was more than 80 percent of new families seeking shelter, and the diversion program’s case manager found 15 of those families permanent housing.

Formerly homeless, Mary Nickelson now works for the organization that sheltered her and her children 20 years ago. She said bypassing a shelter can help families find stable housing more quickly and avoid stress.

“It is very stressful,” she said. “As much as we do to make this (shelter) as pleasant as we can, it’s not, so you’re not relaxed and can’t function as you would if you were diverted, staying somewhere else.”

Still, Nickelson said, the shelter can be life-changing for those who need it the most.

“Every room that’s taken up that could have been diverted, that’s one more family that may have to be outside,” she said.

The diversion program helped Savannah stay at a family member’s house for a while, but she’s happy to have the option to stay at the shelter when she needs to.

“It’s good to have a place to stay,” Savannah said.

Currently, the program targets families, but Salvation Army officials said they hope to hire a second diversion specialist to focus on individuals.