Turf wars 

Agencies battle for families, and funds

A spat between the Salvation Army Missoula Corps. and the Poverello Center, Inc., recently erupted inside the pages of the Missoulian. The superficial question at hand: Which agency is best equipped to serve families? But at a deeper level, the spat may be an unintended consequence of shrinking federal funds for social services, and a sign of future competition for local philanthropic donations.

The May 17 Missoulian ran a story about the Salvation Army’s aspirations to expand its services. Capt. Henry Graciani, commanding officer and pastor of Missoula’s Salvation Army, announced a capital campaign with which the organization hopes to raise $150,000 by September to help remodel the back room of its facility. With the remodel, the non-profit hopes to create showers and dressing rooms for families, laundry facilities, computer workstations and a family day room. “There’s no nonprofit in Missoula…that offers the kinds of services we’re proposing,” Graciani told the Missoulian.

That claim apparently hit a nerve at the Pov.

Soon thereafter, Poverello Director Joe Bischof fired off a response, printed in the Missoulian’s “Letters” section, countering Graciani’s claim. For instance, Bischof wrote, perhaps it was just a “figment of my imagination” that the Poverello Center currently accepts laundry vouchers from the Salvation Army. Showers, phones, food and a day room are all available at the Poverello, he writes. The letter continues: “If the Salvation Army and their donors choose to duplicate services offered by other agencies, and is only blocks away from the Poverello Center, that is certainly their choice.”

Bischof is the only individual so far who has publicly questioned whether the Salvation Army’s planned expansion will offer services already provided elsewhere in the community, but he has spoken with others asking the same question, he says.

On the surface, the tug-o-war revolves around families. In September 2001, the Poverello’s board voted to stop providing emergency shelter services for families, though it continues to provide clothing, laundry, and meals for families. In fact the Pov’s food pantry, says Bischof, is driven by families, having served 3,650 family members last year. Families, however, are the target population for the proposed Salvation Army facility.

About 10 years ago, under the auspices of the At-Risk Housing Coalition (ARHC), Missoula agencies providing housing services came together to loosely coordinate their work. Jim Morton, head of the Human Resource Council, was one of the conveners. At first, he says, the agencies shared common experiences and discussed gaps in services. Together, for instance, they made sure that during bad winters, churches and shelters were prepared to help the homeless, he says.

Now, he says, competition for federal funds has reshaped the coalition. “We talk a lot about grants, and rules,” says Morton. ARHC agencies are mostly “reacting to federal guidelines and federal grant opportunities.” There is so much pressure, he says, to collect “outside money.”

One way the organizations ensure the continued flow of outside money into the community is by eliminating overlap in essential services. Agencies have particular roles, and that delineation of roles helps to “keep the peace” among providers in the community, in the words of one social services provider. Because duplication can compromise much-needed funds, agencies generally respect each others’ territories.

Bischof doesn’t admit to trying to protect the Poverello’s turf with his letter. He does say, however, that “[t]here are certain niches that people have carved out for themselves.” When the Poverello comes across a need that another organization is already filling, he says, “we step away from it.”

He felt compelled, he says, to defend the service-providing community for the help it does offer. The community, he says, isn’t as negligent as Graciani made it out to be.

“I know organizations in town that [provide] a bunch of those services,” says Bischof of the services Graciani billed as “new.” Bischof lists the YWCA, WORD and Mountain Home as examples.

Though he describes his letter as mild, saying it probably looked more vicious than it actually was, the missive took other members of ARHC by surprise.

“ARHC has been talking about this continuum of care,” says Morton, and its members (including the Poverello) agreed years ago that the Salvation Army would be the entry point, or “gateway,” for people needing social services in Missoula.

Graciani was assigned to Missoula, he says, to expand and shore up existing services.

Graciani does not believe he misrepresented the availability of services offered by other agencies in the community, and says he is “baffled, quite frankly,” by Bischof’s letter.

“One of the things that is different in Missoula is the spirit of competition,” says Graciani. Compared to similar communities, he says, it’s milder in Missoula.

Morton, too, expresses surprise at Bischof’s response to the “gateway” plan, which he believes ARHC approved and agreed upon without controversy.

“What’s happened more recently is a mystery to many of us,” he says.

But one thing’s for certain: Both directors, arguments aside, are keenly interested in not alienating local donors.

A controversy like this, worries Graciani, could dissuade local donors from contributing to either organization.

Bischof is also concerned. The Poverello, he says, has “no interest in duplicating what other agencies are doing.” Yet there’s a perception among donors that duplication in services does exist, he says. Both directors say they honor donor wishes and don’t take funds for granted, but Bischof remains pointed in his criticism of the Salvation Army’s family plan.

“I’d just hate to see money being invested in something already being done in our community,” he says.

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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