Spotlight Exclusives

‘We Come Here Broken and Desperate’

Cy Neff Cy Neff, posted on

This story is co-published with The Assembly as part of a new content partnership with Spotlight.

Barbara Adeyemi’s life was bottoming out. She had stopped working in order to care for her mother, who then passed away. Behind on bills with no place to stay and nowhere else to turn, Adeyemi found herself at the doors of the Durham Rescue Mission in November 2018.

Adeyemi found warm meals, a safe place to sleep in a rehabilitated hotel, and a structured, biblically-focused environment. But staying at the nonprofit mission meant hard choices, low pay, and strict rules. The Mission requires its guests to quit outside jobs, and perform what the group labels as “chores,” such as staffing its shelters, or working in its thrift stores. Adeyemi, like other former and current guests, told The Assembly she worked 40 hours for pay that started at just $5 a week.

Guests are called “clients,” and its programs are referred to as “treatment.” For the first six months at the Mission, the pay for most residents doesn’t rise above $50 a week; a handful who are promoted to supervisors make $75 a week. What they are paid is billed as a “gift,” “love offering,” “benevolence,” or “stipend,” rather than a salary.

“If you have anything like a cell phone bill, or anything like that, and you don’t have nobody to help you pay for it?” Adeyemi said. “You’re getting $5 a week, you can’t pay for it.”

For many of the Mission’s guests, the focus on religion and work requirements seemed a small price to pay to get off the streets. But as they saw more of the operation, a number of residents said their resentment about feeling like a poorly paid cog in a lucrative enterprise grew.

“Each client plays a role in line with their abilities in helping keep the community running with daily chore assignments. In addition, clients receive ‘benevolent gifts’ during their stay at the Mission, which increase with length of stay and further if clients undergo such things as vocational training,” Mission CEO Rob Tart said in a written statement to The Assembly.

According to the organization’s 2022 tax returns, it paid $420,000 in “benevolent gifts” to guests. Tart alone made $282,000 in the same year, according to tax returns from the Mission’s three related nonprofits—Rescue Missions MinistriesTemps to the Rescue, and Rescue Legacy Fund. Mission founder Ernie Mills and his wife, Gail, together made $312,319—putting total executive compensation for the three at over half a million dollars.

The Mission is a sprawling enterprise that brought in $23 million in revenue in 2022 across the three nonprofits, and its five thrift stores in the Triangle sold over $7.6 million in donated goods that year. The Mission had $51 million in net assets as of 2022, which dwarfs other Durham-based homeless services, and it attracts people in need from North Carolina and beyond.

Adeyemi left the Mission in September 2020, after a friend offered her a place to stay. To this day, Adeyemi worries about finding herself in a situation where she has to return.

“That’s one of my biggest fears. I do not want to go back there … And I think that makes me push harder,” Adeyemi said. “A lot of people that have been there have been there more than once. It’s like a revolving door.”

The Assembly spoke to 24 former and current guests of the Mission, 19 people involved in homeless and recovery services in the state, as well as Tart and the Mission’s vice president of operations, Gary Beasley. Ernie and Gail Mills did not respond to requests for comment.

Those interviews revealed that while the need for homeless services has grown exponentially in Durham and across the state, staying at the Mission comes with significant strings attached. Adeyemi and other guests described an environment that they viewed as less focused on recovery and ending homelessness, and more on work and religion as a means of control.

The Mission doesn’t allow guests to have a car on-site. Many guests at the Mission grapple with substance abuse or serious mental illness, but the Mission forbids them from enrolling in methadone and suboxone-style drug treatment programs. In addition to working full-time, guests must attend church three times a week, as well as a daily morning prayer meeting.

Women’s Campus. Durham Rescue Mission is a Christian-based organization providing shelter for the unhoused in Durham, North Carolina.

Last year, the Mission reported serving more than a half-million meals and provided more than 167,000 nights of shelter. And on January 19, it set an all-time record of 593 guests in a single night, during power outages across East Durham. On an average night, the Mission houses more than 450 people between its campuses and off-site housing. Two of the Triangle’s other largest shelters, Urban Ministries of Durham and Wilmington Street in Raleigh, can shelter a respective 100 and 160 people a night.

“Most people just show up. A lot of time prison vans drop people off. That happens regularly. A lot of social workers and a lot of hospitals send people here,” Tart said in an interview. Tart emphasized what he views to be a core tenet of the Mission’s philosophy, regardless of a guest’s origin.

“We will always have one more bed,” Tart said.

The Mission does not accept government funding, freeing it from much of the oversight about policies and data collection that other shelters must provide.

For many guests, the choice between sleeping on the street and living on the Mission’s terms isn’t much of a choice at all.

“We sign away pretty much all of our legal rights in order to stay here,” Jessica Sullivan wrote to The Assembly while at the Mission in February. Sullivan had been at the Mission on and off since 2021, and recently found outside housing with her child. “We come here broken and desperate, and they take advantage of that.”

‘Work Therapy’

Ernie Mills, now in his late 70s, grew up in eastern North Carolina tobacco country and watched his father die from alcoholism. Years later, Mills said he felt moved by God to open a mission in Durham that helped the homeless and people suffering from addiction.

Mills’ vision of healing broken souls by giving them the word of God and instilling a determined work ethic holds true in the Mission today, which describes itself as seeking “to meet, through the power of Jesus Christ, the spiritual, educational, emotional, physical, social, and vocational needs of the whole person so that those who are hurting may become fully functioning members of society.”

“We are unashamedly followers of Christ. I believe that what Christ did for us is the means to sanity, is the means to joy and happiness, is the means to a good life,” Tart said. “So for us, it’s that message that is live-giving and motivating.”

Strategies for addressing addiction have changed drastically since the Mission was founded in 1974, but the organization’s approach has remained constant. Along with the low-paid labor and regular church services, a minority of residents interviewed reported receiving counseling services. Guests also reported mandatory drug tests, with some saying this helped them maintain sobriety and structure. The Mission bars guests from participating in medication treatment for substance abuse, which helps lower cravings and withdrawals for people recovering from addiction.

“When I filled out the paperwork, one of the questions on there asked if you was ever a user or if you go to a treatment program, and I said yes,” said Sherrie Turner, who applied in December 2023. “And they told me that I could not stay there because I was on the methadone program.”

She decided continuing her treatment program was more important, and was still homeless at the time of our interview.

Men’s Campus. Durham Rescue Mission is a Christian-based organization providing shelter for the unhoused in Durham, North Carolina.

The treatment that is provided focuses on biblical teachings.

“We’re not a medical facility, and I’m not trying to be one,” said Beasley, the Mission’s vice president of operations. “We help so many people … I can’t have 500 different plans for someone.”

But preventing residents from accessing this type of care is dangerous, said Jennifer Carroll, a medical anthropologist at N.C. State University and a primary researcher and author of the Center for Disease Control’s strategies for preventing opioid overdose. Carroll also helped design the CDC’s Overdose Response Program.

“What they’re asking people to do actively puts them at higher risk of an overdose. This has been established in medical science for ages,” Carroll said. “Denying them access to medication when it’s the difference between having a roof over your head and freezing to death in the winter shocks the conscience.”

While the Mission’s website states that “helping others overcome addictions has always been a priority,” the state of North Carolina does not list the Mission as one of the 115 licensed substance abuse or mental health treatment facilities in Durham County.

In 2020, the investigative series American Rehab by Reveal looked at more than 300 unpaid labor and “work therapy” programs across the country. While it’s not mentioned in that series, Durham’s other large work-based rehab, TROSA, has also received scrutiny in recent years from local reporters.

The 1985 case Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation v. Secretary of Labor looked at a non-profit religious foundation that built a business and real estate conglomerate using laborers who had sought drug treatment and housing.

The court ruled unanimously against the foundation, finding it was not exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act. Anyone working for the expectation of compensation, even in the form of housing and meals, is considered an employee, not a volunteer. Additionally, laborers were contributing to the “enrichment” of the foundation by working at its businesses.

Former Mission guests questioned how it can be legal to pay less than minimum wage for the kind of work they did. “If I’m working at the store to pay for me living there, that’s against the law. If I’m also not getting paid at least minimum wage, that’s also against the law,” said former guest Jacques Howell, who came to the Mission in December 2023 after a local organization in Fayetteville recommended it.

(In response to a request for comment on the legality, a Mission spokesperson reiterated their argument that the money given to guests is not a wage but a gift.)

Clermont Ripley, co-director of the Worker’s Project at the North Carolina Justice Center, has tried two cases in North Carolina, Presson v. Recovery Connections Community and Armento v. Asheville Buncombe Christian Ministry, which alleged violations of state wage laws by nonprofit, work-based recovery programs. The Presson case found that the laborers were being exploited, while Armento did not, with the different verdicts hinging upon the definition of when laborers were legally classified as employees. Ripley believes that there should be clearer state and federal legislation on these institutions.

“I think homeless shelters and therapeutic programs for people with drug and substance abuse dependency are valuable, and they need to figure out a way to cover their expenses,” Ripley said. “But I don’t think they should be profit generating for their CEO on the backs of the residents through free labor.”

In the 2006 book about the Mission’s history, A Step of Faith, Mills gave his reasoning for not paying guests wages or allowing them to hold outside jobs.

“In the beginning, I was under the impression that if a guy was homeless his problem was that he needed a job and money,” Mills said. “… Really, that could be the worst thing for him. Literally, we were enabling them. We were giving them a place to stay until they could earn some money to get their next fix. That was hurting them. Until they have control of themselves, they can’t control the money.”

In his interview with The Assembly, Tart was careful to refer to labor of Mission guests as “chores,” and said the money they receive is not related to their work.

Guests are “not on payroll,” Tart said. “They’re not reimbursed for their labor. Everybody is given a stipend here. It’s a gift.”

Labor and Life at The Mission

A typical day at the Mission started with a 6 a.m. wake up and 7 a.m. morning prayer meetings, Howell said. He was then bussed an hour north to the Mission’s Roxboro thrift store, where he would start work at 9 a.m. He didn’t return to the Mission till between 7 and 8 p.m.

After staying for 21 days, guests can enroll in the Victory Program, which reduces weekly work hours from 40 to 20. Residents use the newfound time to attend biblically-focused classes (sample course title: “Evangelism Explosion”), from 12:30-4:30 Monday-Friday, for six months. These classes are followed by six months of employment training and a final ‘apprenticeship’ phase, where guests can work in one of the Mission’s departments, or thrift stores.

According to a written statement from Tart, Victory Program graduates can be given rewards “such as a voucher toward a vehicle from the Mission, money toward housing closing costs, educational scholarships, and credits at the Mission thrift store.”

Thrift Store. Durham Rescue Mission is a Christian-based organization providing shelter for the unhoused in Durham, North Carolina.

Labor was central to the experience of every former guest interviewed for this story. They described a variety of jobs including lawn care, cooking in the kitchen, staffing the shelters, and most frequently, working at the Mission’s thrift stores.

The website states that guests “must help out with chores around the Mission,” but it does not list other rules and policies. Tart declined to provide a written list of rules with The Assembly, or a copy of the contract guests sign upon arrival at the Mission, or to give a reason for not providing the rules.

But former guests say the rules are strict. Once they arrive, they are forbidden from leaving campus during their first week. Guests said that they had to make up work hours missed for any reason, including sickness or medical appointments. The most common penalty for disciplinary infractions, such as dress code violations, or being late to church, is additional work hours.

Guests must attend Christian religious services regardless of whether aspects of their identity, such as sexual orientation, religion, or gender expression, conflict with beliefs being espoused. The mission sends transgender guests to the campus of their assigned sex at birth, contrary to federal guidelines.

Guests at the Mission can transition from “love offerings” to employment after six months. Guests can take jobs through Temps to The Rescue, which contracts out to local businesses, work for the Mission, or can find an outside job independently. While men have the option of moving to transitional housing, be that suite-style dormitories or the blocks of houses the Mission owns downtown, women must stay on their campus.

After six months, the Mission starts charging most guests what they call “program fees,” which will not exceed more than one third of their income, up to $100 a week, according to Tart. In a December sermon at the Mission’s chapel, Beasley argued that $100 was a low cost for what they offer.

“I know very few people lining up to take in 500 people and make sure they have a place to stay, to make sure they have food to eat. Somebody’s gotta pay for it,” Beasley said. “I wish I could live off of $100 a week. Y’all got a great opportunity here. We’re gonna give you the word of God.”

But not all guests can afford it. Mark Scruggs, 66, stayed at the Mission from December 2011 to April 18, 2012. He found out about a blockage in his heart through Samaritan Health Center, a faith-based health clinic that provides no-cost healthcare to Mission guests. The blockage was severe enough to bump him up the list for cardiac surgery at UNC. A few weeks after Scruggs’ surgery, Mission staff asked him to unload a truck against his doctor’s orders.

Mark Scruggs, 66, left the Durham Rescue Mission in 2012, after being required to unload a tractor trailer while recovering from triple bypass surgery.

“I said, my doctor told me not to pick up anything heavier than my own dinner plate … They told me that if I wasn’t gone in 10 minutes they would have me removed as a trespasser,” Scruggs said, noting that the staffers who removed him are still there in leadership positions.

“I immediately found out what my worth was when I could not work anymore. I was just like an empty McDonald’s bag in the back of your car. It goes in the trash,” Scruggs said. (Disclosure: Scruggs and the reporter previously worked together at Open Table Ministry’s emergency winter homeless shelter.) 

In response to a questions about removing guests that were no longer able to work, Tart wrote, “We do not remove anyone from Durham Rescue Mission for not being able to work, but when a guest comes to point where they cannot maintain their own hygiene or self-care, we may ask them to find more proper facilities.”

Former staff also described conflicted feelings about the Mission. Mary Wilson was a nurse at the Samaritan Health Clinic for nine years. When she left and founded Fresh Start, a mobile service offering no-cost showers, laundry, and haircuts in Durham, she chose to do so without the Mission.

“The Mission helps a lot of people with Samaritan that wouldn’t get that level of care otherwise. And that kept me there for years,” Wilson said. “Working with homeless people, it’s so relationship-based. It’s trust. And the people I serve, I need them to know that I’m low-barrier, that I welcome everyone.”

For Beasley, the explanation for why some question their practices is simple.

“A lot of people don’t like us because a lot of people don’t like God,” he said. “And I just, I’ll pray for them. That’s all I can do.”

A Regional Footprint

During a tour of the men’s campus, guests identified themselves as from other parts of North Carolina, Virginia, D.C., and New York. Recent articles on the Mission feature guests from Texas and South Carolina.

When these people leave, voluntarily or otherwise, many end up on Durham’s streets or with other organizations serving the unhoused.

Russell Pierce, executive director of Housing for New Hope, said it would be helpful if the Mission informed other agencies when former clients from elsewhere end up on the streets of Durham—“for there to be a more coordinated service or alert process, so that those of us working in homeless services would know that there’s somebody new entering.”

Zachary Hair first came to the Mission from New Bern in June 2016 and stayed through November 2017, and returned for a few months in 2018. He supervised one of the Mission’s thrift stores and compared the pay structure to indentured servitude. But he also said that comforts like a soda machine in the cafeteria, clean towels, and free hot meals are enticing to people at their lowest point in life.

“The Mission makes a lot of money, and they’ll even tell me, you know, they said we don’t care what kind of lifestyle you have. This is a business. We want you to help us earn money,” said Hair, who was living in subsidized housing in Durham at the time of his interview“And that’s why they valued me, because I could earn them money. I knew how to manage people. I knew how to work hard.”

Men’s Campus. Durham Rescue Mission is a Christian-based organization providing shelter for the unhoused in Durham, North Carolina.

While the stipends paid to the people who keep the thrift stores running are a stark contrast with what the Mission pays its top executives, it’s also at odds with other homelessness organizations in Durham.

The salaries for the executive directors of five other Durham-based homeless service agencies—Urban Ministries, Families Moving Forward, Open Table Ministries, Durham Crisis Response Center, and Housing for New Hope— were all under $110,000.

Tart’s salary is more at home with higher-revenue organizations across the state: the CEO of Charlotte Rescue Mission, which brought in $24.6 million in revenue in 2022, made around $210,000, while the leader of Goodwill of Eastern North Carolina, which brought in $43.6 million in revenue, made $305,000.

“I think the ratio of money they take in to money they give is way, way, in the bad area,” said Isaac*, who stayed at the Mission between 2014 and 2018.

A friend brought Isaac to the Mission from Moore County, after hearing that it helped homeless people. He’s now homeless in Durham, and requested anonymity to speak about the Mission, out of concern that he might have to return there someday.

The Mission owns at least 75 parcels of land in Durham County alone, including its multi-building men’s campus, multiple thrift stores, over 35 houses in the blocks surrounding the men’s campus, and a 6.5 acre plot of land housing the Mission’s south Durham training center.

The Mission’s scale and flexibility allow it to take in prospective guests same-day at a time when Durham’s homeless systems are increasingly strained. As of March 25, all shelters in Durham were full, and there were 296 individuals on the shelter waiting list.

Families Moving Forward Director of Programs Tasha Melvin said for many, the Mission is the only option.

“I’m getting calls and telling people we can’t take you tonight, there’s a process to get on the waitlist … I’m the same person to say please call the Mission. Get your child off of the street tonight if you can,” said Melvin. “Whether I agree with the service model or not, I completely disagree with a child sleeping on the street.”

Mark Scruggs, 66, left the Durham Rescue Mission in 2012, after being required to unload a tractor trailer while recovering from triple bypass surgery.

Most service providers in Durham provide data to the Homeless Management Information System, a federal program that tracks trends in homelessness and documents people’s history with providers to create a sort of electronic housing and medical record, allowing for consistency in care between organizations.

But the Mission does not, nor does it share data with the city or take part in the annual Point In Time count, an effort to track homelessness across the country. Guests do not have to be homeless to enroll in the Mission’s programs, and it does not track how many of its guests are unhoused. The lack of data makes it difficult to follow outcomes for Mission guests, critics say.

“I want to see transparency and I want to know how successful you are in doing what you say your mission is, which should be getting homeless people housed,” said Ryan Fehrman, the former executive director of the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. “If a significant portion of these resources that are going to the Rescue Mission went to other publicly funded agencies … Those agencies need those resources, and we know from HMIS that they’re successful at what they do.”

Pierce said that he sees the Mission as more of a religious program than a homeless services one.

“They don’t provide homeless services in the sense that we tend to understand it. People are coming with a variety of different challenges into a specifically-valued and constructed program,” Pierce said. “They operate outside of the whole system entirely.”

But residents don’t necessarily know the rules and requirements when they arrive, often in desperate situations.

“I think it’s a business first. Maybe Jesus would come in third or fourth place,” said Isaac. “They did take me in when they didn’t have to and I had nothing. That counts for a lot.”

Cy Neff is Durham born-and-raised and took a non-linear path to freelancing that included working in homeless shelters, restaurants, on chainsaw crews, and for various Durham-based community organizations. He currently works for USA Today as their Wyoming Elections Reporting Fellow and can be found online at @cyneffnews.

Correction: This story previously reported that the Supreme Court outlawed using housing and meals as a form of wages. Housing and meals can be deducted from an employer’s wage obligation, provided the employer complies with certain requirements.

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