Going into the red

24 October 2014

I HAVE just walked past the Museum of Pornography and the Museum of Marijuana, Hash, and Hemp. I am also within hailing distance of prostitutes dressed to tempt and displayed in generously sized windows. I am in the Salvation Army Centre in the red-light district of Amsterdam.

The Salvation Army has a close relationship with the city authorities, and for one very good reason: its pitch. "Give us your most difficult cases," it says, "and we'll see what we can do." If there are homes where the regular home-help services won't go, the Salvation Army - which is funded by the government because there is no competition from other providers - is called on.

Whether they are drop-outs, prostitutes, drug addicts, or homeless, the Salvation Army wants to help. "We see an issue that no one knows what to do with - and we try and work something out," Mark Spaargaren, who has guided much of the Army's presence in Amsterdam, says.

Its work includes a shelter for single mothers aged from 18 to 23. It is safe lodging that matters; but they also work on psychological issues while they are there. They watch themselves on video, interacting with their children; and they learn about finances, social skills, and safe sex.

Progress is slow, however; only about one in three mothers are ready to take care of their children when they leave. Others will have to learn to be "mothers at distance", bonding with their children while they remain in foster care.

Such community care is expensive, but it has to be. Generational patterns, we are told, are not changed by someone dropping by once a month to say hello; a community means more labour, but more healing. The staff are young women themselves, with social-work backgrounds. "When people hear I work for the Salvation Army, they think I eat soup all day," one of them says.

They live with crisis daily, but seem well on it. Mr Spaargaren says: "They believe in what they do, and that makes all the difference." And God? They're doctrine-lite here in Amsterdam, but "you have to have something of God in you. That's what we ask for."

In another Army facility, drugs are allowed. There are no rules about what you put into yourself, because those rules will be broken; but there are rules about behaviour, and no physical violence is allowed. "We don't broadcast the fact that we allow drugs in some facilities," we are told. "But this work has great impact in the area; so the government funds it. It works."

I imagine William Booth smiling because visions, like children, must grow up.

Twitter: @simonparke

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