As the Salvation Army – a 100-year-old organization of good will – struggles to feed and clothe the community’s downtrodden, a few troublemakers seem intent on upsetting the process.
In its soup kitchen on lower Main Street on St. Thomas, the Christian-based charity feeds approximately 50 people a day, but for more than a year its administrators say it has been struggling to replace stolen food and equipment and to repair damage and defacement to the property.
They say the ordeal began last March when the administration had to cut back on the food portions served in the soup kitchen.
"We had reached a dilemma,” said Valerie Hazeldine, a Salvation Army captain and organization administrator, who explained that the nonprofit’s budget wouldn’t allow them to continue the unsustainable serving practices.
“We could keep feeding the way that we were for three or four months or we could cut back what we were feeding and keep feeding for three or four years,” Hazeldine said.
Hazeldine said she and the organization’s other administrators – Capts. Daniel Hazeldine and Anna Hawkins – felt the former would be irresponsible. "If we kept feeding at those amounts, we would run out of money,” she said.
“It did not seem right that we should be using the money that quickly," she added.
A few of the soup kitchen’s regulars were outraged by the change, Valerie Hazeldine said, and they began dumping half-eaten food back into the serving trays, ruining the whole batch. They threw bottles into the chapel, threatening everyone’s safety, she said.
The administrators said they were forced to make people take their food outside.
The perpetrators then began harassing people that came to the soup kitchen, grabbing their food and throwing it on the ground.
Hazeldine and Hawkins said they have been threatened with rape, and all three captains said they have had threats against their lives.
"Anna has actually had people walk right up and spit in her face and shove her about. She has been shoved into the railings," Hazeldine said.
The organization has called the police several times but Hazeldine said the troublemakers leave before the police arrive. On those occasions the witnesses remain silent, not wanting to anger the culprits, she said, adding that without witnesses they can’t prove anything.
Despite these difficulties, Daniel Hazeldine said he is reluctant to criticize the police. “The police are extremely shorthanded,” he said. “You can’t enforce laws if there aren’t enough people to enforce them.”
The charity is urging the community to step in and help. Valerie Hazeldine believes actual physical presence is needed.
"Maybe the Salvation Army can be a focal point," she said. "Maybe people can come down when we are doing the soup kitchen and help stand in the gap between the troublemakers and those who need the help. Maybe we can be the start of people standing up for each other."
Hawkins said that in recent months the terrorizing and verbal attacks have escalated to vandalism and theft. Someone broke in on two separate occasions and cleared out the pantry and a room full of hygiene products, running away with about $7,000 worth of donations.
Someone even stole the organization’s water pump. Fortunately, the Salvation Army is serviced by WAPA. Unfortunately, vandals later damaged the pipe valves that supply water to the building. When that was fixed, the vandals cut the pipes.
The Salvation Army also had to close its doors for a day because it had no water to prepare food and no bathroom facilities for staff and guests.
Daniel Hazeldine said he believes that the community can no longer afford to look the other way. "If we just close our eyes and say, ‘That’s not me,’ then eventually one day it will be you."
"We are asking the community to step up,” Hazeldine continued later. “Start saying that these kinds of things are not acceptable in the community."
The Salvation Army has been a part of the community for many years and refuses to step down from its work because of a few troublemakers, but the administrators believe they’re not getting the support they need.
"Five people at best causing a problem for 60. Something is not right there," said Hazeldine. “We have to do something about this.”
Police Chief Darren Foy had no comment on the ongoing investigation; however, he said that officers responding to these disturbances are working to rectify the situation.