Minneapolis, Minn. — This year the Salvation Army hopes to staff 79,000 hours of bell ringing in the metro area. Though the number of volunteers has been rising in recent years, there are only enough to fill one-sixth of those hours. For the rest, the Salvation Army hires many of the same people it serves.
On weekday mornings, the Harbor Light shelter and multi-service center in Minneapolis takes on the feel of a temp agency. From the shelter's upper floors and from the street outside, men and a few women gather downstairs to be called for a day's work.
Many have been out before. Ronald Kindrick is one who is here for the first time. His application requires just a Social Security card and one other ID. Kindrick is a Gulf War veteran, recently unemployed from his job as a nursing assistant. He says he has seen bell ringers many times, but never knew they got paid.
"I just thought it was a volunteer thing, out of charity and the goodness of their heart," he says. "I thought for me it would be a waste of time, wouldn't be something I'd be interested in. But time changes."
Bell ringing pays $7 an hour. It's an eight-hour day, once the ringers are dropped off at their posts. Volunteers usually take over at night and on weekends.
Kindrick has stayed at this shelter during an episode of homelessness. He says he now feels good going to work for the Salvation Army.
It's a "real interesting circle," he says. "Everybody benefits because I think everybody gets a good feeling from working around the Salvation Army for whatever the cause, whatever the reason."
Kindrick and others wait patiently for the arrival of Harbor Light Executive Director Bill Miller, who offers a quick prayer and sends them in to breakfast. Miller says while the Salvation Army would like more volunteers, hiring bell ringers fits the organization's goal of helping people to self-sufficiency.
"When they work for me, they have a job they can put down on their resume," Miller says. "They all get my card and they can use me as a reference. You can see we have people coming and working that can't get hired anywhere else right now."
Miller says last year Cub Foods, Rainbow Foods, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores hired people who had spent the season ringing a bell outside their doors. As he talks, a call comes in telling him where bell ringers are needed for the day, and Miller heads to the cafeteria and starts calling names to fill the vans waiting outside.
People make their way out to the curb with a red bucket and whatever warm clothes they'll need for the day.
Their vans are headed to sometimes far-flung suburbs. Francie Paluck is headed to ring outside a Byerly's in Chanhassen. Paluck lives at the shelter. She's 22 years old, part of a program to teach basic life and vocational skills. She has been out bell ringing six days a week since Thanksgiving.
"I really don't think about the cold," she says. "We keep warm, they feed us, a lot of kind people bring you hot chocolate, scarves, hats, everything. And they talk with you, so the time just flies."
One of those vans also heads for Shakopee. Later that day, the sun has gone down on John, standing outside a Walgreens there. John left prison at the end of November, and worries that using his last name on the news would complicate his efforts to start fresh.
Three days after he got out, he was posted outside the Walgreens and has been here ever since.
"I like this right here," he says, "because I like the employees and I think if I were to fill out an application, I could actually get hired."
Just the day before, John says he had saved up enough to open a bank account and buy a pre-paid cell phone so prospective employers have a way to reach him.
Up the street, Ronald Kindrick, the man completing his first day as a bell ringer, is warming up inside a Fashion Bug store. He's not looking to parlay this post into a permanent job. But it suits his need for steady work right now.
"I'll be back again tomorrow, the rest of the week, and I plan to work up until Christmas Eve," Kindrick says. "I wanted to just have some money to have me a nice Christmas."
After Christmas, of course, the buckets and bells are put away for another year. And for many of the bell ringers, the search for daily work gets more complicated once again.