Salvation Army fights recurring theft

Looters repeatedly target the organization’s donation bins

Every Monday at 8 a.m., Oscar Martin shows up for work to find a parking lot scattered with clothes, furniture, toys and an array of other household items.

They’re all donations to the Salvation Army at 3740 Nicollet Ave., where Martin is a manager-in-training. Looters have made a habit of rifling through the goods — most left in metal donation bins and others dropped illegally alongside the building — taking what they want and strewing the rest on the pavement.

“It’s making us work harder,” Martin said. “The stuff that they trash out here. It could be sellable, but I’m not going to pick it up and try to put it in my store.”

Much of the mess ends up in the dumpster. Martin has even resorted to using a shovel when the disarray is too overwhelming, or when rain or snow make cleanup more difficult.

Donation theft is nothing new at the Nicollet Avenue Salvation Army, one of two locations in Minneapolis and seven in the Twin Cities area, but store manager Jill Kopel said the problem is particularly bad this year. It has taken away from the store’s offerings, hurt its ability to raise money for the organization’s Adult Rehabilitation Center Downtown and frightened customers.

“It’s not a good sight to see,” Kopel said. “It just gives you a bad feeling about people and we’re in a good neighborhood.”

The looting happens after store hours, especially on Sundays. Sometimes people are still going through the bins when employees arrive. The containers’ main doors are locked, but a smaller door designed for donations is just big enough to squeeze through with some effort.

Kopel and Martin said one family sends its children into the bins, which is dangerous because the doors are heavy and difficult to open from the inside. Dumping of items outside the bins, which a sign on the store warns is a misdemeanor, has enhanced the problem.  

Employees have confronted the looters on several occasions, but haven’t been able to keep them away, even with “no trespassing” signs. Calls to 911 haven’t made a difference either, Kopel said. When police do arrive, it’s usually after people have left the area.  

Tom Thompson, a Crime Prevention Specialist with the Minneapolis Police Department, said he was unaware of the frequency of theft at the Salvation Army. He said 911 reports showed two calls to the store in the past month for theft and people rummaging through donations.

Lt. Jack Kelly said more frequent 911 calls along with improved security of the bins using a camera system, fence or guard could help solve the problem.

Police recently contributed new, more permanent “no trespassing” signs to the store, since vandals ripped down previous signs.

Bill Price, administrator of the Salvation Army’s Downtown Adult Rehabilitation Center, said the organization would love the thieving to end, but weighed against the cost of security cameras or prosecution of looters, it’s tolerable.  

“I guess you could call it the cost of doing business to some degree,” Price said. “It’s a problem in that we would rather it not happen, but it will never be entirely leak proof. As long as we have receptacles for people to drop off [items], which is a convenience for donors, somebody’s going to try to get that stuff sometimes.”

Price said he suspects the amount of income lost to donation theft is minimal, but it’s something he hopes a watchful community can help limit, so donations are used as intended.

“Our responsibility, basically, is to convert the donation of stuff into cash that funds this program,” he said, referring to the Adult Rehabilitation Center. “So anything that you donate that we don’t get to use is a loss to us, obviously, and a loss to the program.”

The Adult Rehabilitation Center provides housing, clothing, medical attention and educational assistance to men struggling with drug or alcohol addictions.

Regular Salvation Army donor Debra Morse-Kahn has been supporting the program for years through donations to the Nicollet Avenue store. She was on her way there with some clothing and plates on a recent Sunday evening when she happened upon a looting in progress.

“I turned into the lot and drove all the way to the end to suddenly find myself surrounded by piles of stuff,” she said.

Shocked, she called 911 and quickly left without leaving her donation.  

“I wasn’t going to stay there,” she said. “I was frightened and then later I got terribly angry because to me, the donations are how the Salvation Army raises its money.”

Morse-Kahn said she won’t stop giving to the Salvation Army, but she won’t go there after hours anymore.

Kopel said the store’s bins will remain outside for after-hours drop-offs, but she encourages donors to come from 10 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Monday–Friday and 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Saturday, when they can deliver items to employees. She said she would prefer no donations on Sundays, when the store is closed. And, she said, dumping of items outside the bins is prohibited always, unless store personnel say otherwise.

If more people follow those guidelines, more donations should find their way into the store and Martin might find the parking lot surprisingly clean some Monday morning.