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Three former supervisors at the Salvation Army's Denver drug and alcohol rehabilitation center say the center's directors blatantly discriminate against blacks and gays--and that people who have spoken out against the "outrageous racial hostility" have been fired, demoted or expelled from the center. Epithets such as "boy" and "nigger" are commonly hurled at employees and program participants, say the center's former director of rehabilitation, thrift-store supervisor and intake coordinator for the rehab center, all of whom claim they were fired for blowing the whistle. Those accusations, coupled with a general state of disarray, have led two members of the Salvation Army's advisory council to call for the ouster of the rehab center's present leadership.
Former intake coordinator Tom Nabholz, whose attorneys are preparing a federal civil-rights suit against the Salvation Army, claims the hostile environment was created by captains Jack and Anna Phillips, the husband-and-wife team that runs the rehabilitation center. In sworn affidavits taken on Nabholz's behalf, present and former employees say that Jack Phillips verbally abused black clients and staffers alike, once telling a black secretary, "Smile so I can see you." Anna Phillips reportedly ordered staffers to stop admitting black women into the drug rehab program because they are "not our kind of people."
In addition, the affidavits say, the couple's "mean-spirited" and "abusive" behavior has subverted treatment efforts and resulted in low program enrollment, even though there is a dire need for rehab beds in the Denver metropolitan area.
Jack and Anna Phillips would not comment on the specific allegations in the case to Westword. The Salvation Army has hired Colorado Springs attorney Glenn Schlabs to represent it in the matter. Schlabs says his clients "categorically deny" any and all accusations of racism. Though the attorney says he can't discuss personnel matters, the Army also disputes Nabholz's contention that he was fired in retaliation for reporting discrimination. The only official response provided by the Army is a joint statement issued by Major Daniel Starrett and Paul Delaney, administrators for the charitable organization's western territory. "The Salvation Army," the statement says, "asserts in the strongest terms possible that all employees and beneficiaries are treated fairly and without discrimination, in keeping with the principles of the Army."
The stated mission of the Salvation Army (a Christian charity organized along military lines) is "to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination." But in a March 1 letter to officials at the Army's territorial headquarters in California, two of the three members of the local volunteer council (which meets monthly to review conditions at the local chapters and advise the territorial administration) expressed concern that despite repeated requests, Army brass was ignoring employees who wished to voice complaints. "Our principal need was to have you address the horror of [Jack Phillips's] random, uncaring decisions which hurt people, broke morale and brought dishonor to the name of our Lord," wrote councilmembers Stewart Swanson and Eugene Peters.
"If we may be so specific," the letter continued, "we respectfully request that Captain Phillips be removed IMMEDIATELY...certainly not to a similar assignment where he can further ply his tyrannical skills through interpersonal relations, causing even more heartache and pain."
Swanson says the councilmen were later pressured by Army administrators to back off their call for the immediate removal of Jack Phillips. "We were persuaded," he and Peters wrote in a follow-up letter to headquarters, that an untimely reassignment would "draw unwanted attention to an Army transfer."
Swanson, a retired Defense Department employee, now says he wishes he hadn't given in so easily. "The Salvation Army is not concerned with the welfare of employees who have been unjustly terminated," he says. "On the outward appearance, they're quite concerned about their fellow man. But they don't practice what they preach, I guess."
The nerve center of the Salvation Army's Denver Adult Rehabilitation Center is a musty warehouse located alongside the intersection of Interstate 25 and Interstate 70. Inside, alcoholics and drug abusers who are, they hope, on the road to recovery, sort and stack mounds of donated clothing, repair furniture and appliances, glue wobbly drawers and reupholster torn sofas. The program participants' duties are considered not work but "work therapy," which the Army believes will build self-esteem and restore the participants "to useful, productive habits which prepare them to return to regular employment."
The participants also help pay their own way: The income generated from the sale of the donated goods is the major source of funding for the rehab program. And whether they realize it or not, as they go about their jobs, they are carrying out one aspect of the Army's three-pronged philosophy, which stresses the importance of a balance in the spiritual, mental and physical aspects of a person's life.
Although the Army may be best known locally for its bell-ringing Christmas kettle collections, it has established a number of churches and social- services agencies throughout the state. It operates a homeless shelter near downtown Denver and a child-care center in Aurora. There is a Red Shield community and recreation center, a social-service center for men and a family-services program that provides emergency aid to families and travelers.