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Abundance of donations turns into a pile of woes at short-staffed Salvation Army

The Salvation Army has a major problem, and the charity's dilemma gives new meaning to the phrase "an embarrassment of riches."

With an extreme shortage of truck drivers, donations are piling up at its locations faster than it can retrieve them. At three locations in particular – North Tonawanda, Kenmore and Amherst – things have really gotten out of hand. Despite notices asking donors not to leave donations outside if bins are full, dozens upon dozens of bags and boxes are scattered or stacked outside the store.

Recent rainstorms ruined many of those donations, including books and electronics, which would have been sold at area thrift stores to raise money for the organizations's Adult Rehabilitation Center on Military Road. The six-month program helps men struggling with addiction, homelessness and mental illness.

Jennifer Helpard, who took over as administrator of the Adult Rehab Center two months ago, said the problem has her in "distress."

"It hurts my heart twice as bad because I see the goods there and I know they would've turned into money to run our program. We're not government funded. Whatever comes in, that's our income," she said. "We have to keep cutting back, and when I see wasted goods I know it's not good for the world in general but it's not good for our program for sure."

Complicating the problem is that the most troublesome locations attract people who drop off "literal garbage," including kitchen scraps, construction debris and paint cans. Then, thieves and trespassers visit the site nightly to root through the piles, opening bags and scattering things everywhere, Helpard said. Well-meaning others will fill a U-Haul with unsold items from a yard sale and deposit them after hours.

"I’m not trying at all to sound ungrateful because we want people’s donations, but if I brought stuff and saw that pile I’d think ‘Gosh I’m not leaving it now,’ " she said.

The trucks pick up as much as they can and take it to the warehouse, where it is sorted and then distributed to the stores. Store employees also bring as many items inside as possible. But the stores are as understaffed as the trucks are. The long Labor Day weekend also put the process further behind, Helpard said. Last week, employees at the North Tonawanda store put up a sign and blocked the donation area with orange cones, informing donors the location was no longer taking donations, and directing them to the warehouse at 1080 Military Road. Still, people have continued depositing bags and boxes.

"As a not young woman anymore, my first instinct is to load my van up. But it’s like a raindrop in the wind. It wouldn’t do any good," Helpard said.

She said she is considering putting up a fence and gates at the North Tonawanda location, and is looking for other ideas to keep problem sites under control. She also just received six new applications for the open driving positions and hopes to be fully staffed soon.

Sue Coran has lived directly across from the North Tonawanda donation bins for more than 20 years. She said the problems got worse when bins were moved from the busy Payne Avenue side of the store to the back of the store on Ridge Road, where it's more secluded. In August, the mound of clothes and household items started growing so big, it now fills the entire lot behind the thrift store. She hears the cars coming in and out at all hours, glass breaking, and teenagers throwing things at each other. She has watched people pull up with trailers and fill them with stolen goods. She has called the police over the years, but stopped after they told her she was being a nuisance, she said.

One night, she tried to shoo away a man who was stealing from the piles. He got angry and they exchanged words. The next morning she woke up and her tires were slashed, she said. Another night she heard a crash and saw a crystal punch bowl set, with everything shattered except for the ladle. On July 4, someone set one of the bins on fire, which burned the store's awning.

"There are regulars. One woman comes by every night in a black car. People will load up their trunk so much their car bottoms out," Coran said. "There are landlords who will empty a whole apartment and drop it off. Then the scrappers will go through and cut every single cord off all the electronics and appliances" so that they can sell the wire in the cords.

Goodwill of Western New York doesn't use donation bins. Instead, it collects donations at its 12 retail stores and 12 trailer sites, which are staffed by attendants. Merchandise sold in its stores support its job training programs for people with disabilities and other unemployment issues.

Donations peak during the summer, at the end of winter, before the school year begins, and other times when people tend to clean out their closets. But Goodwill hasn't encountered problems like the Salvation Army is seeing, it said.

"Garage sale season is another donation cycle that strains our systems," said Eric Schwarz, vice president of donated goods and retail at Goodwill. "High volume donation traffic can overwhelm us from time to time, but generally not often and not for long periods."

Hearts for the Homeless accepts shoes and clothing at more than 400 red clothing bins on church and business properties across Western New York. The bins are equipped with sensors that let the organization know how full the bins are, so it can prioritize which pickups drivers can skip and which bins need to be addressed immediately. There are also phone numbers on the bins people can call when they find a bin full. Calls to that number go directly to the cellphone of the organization's chief operating officer, Nick Calandra. He uses the data from the sensors and the phone messages early each morning to set routes for the company's three full-time drivers.

He expects to receive a certain amount of garbage in the bins, as it comes with the territory, but the crews have a system for sorting it on the truck and disposing of it. The organization also has to find ways to dispose of nonclothing donations it is not equipped to process. In Batavia, someone deposited a large amount of furniture outside one of its donation boxes.

"It was clear someone had emptied out their storage shed," Calandra said.

It recently happened a second time at the same location. As a result, the organization is contemplating removing the bin from that site before it becomes a problem.

Calandra said Hearts for the Homeless pays its drivers more than those at other nonprofits and thinks that might be why it can stay fully staffed. It uses the funds from the donated goods it sells to fund its mobile soup kitchen, and it's in the process of building a new food pantry, urban cafe and bottle redemption center in Riverside.

"Yes we’re a charity, but I want to run this very business-minded. We want to be good stewards," said Calandra. "We want to be very efficient, get the most use out of donors' things, run trucks efficiently, take care of the sites."

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