Thirty years ago, when the War on Poverty was declared, most Americans believed that the federal government had the skill and power to defeat poverty. By employing the brightest people to design anti-poverty programs, and by spending billions of dollars to fund those programs, poverty could be eradicated--or so people believed.

Today, however, after decades of disappointing results and unintended consequences, federal anti-poverty programs are headed for history's scrap heap. Believers in the effectiveness of these programs are now very difficult to find.

Meanwhile, a bonafide, private poverty-fighting institution has grown in credibility and public support. Founded 130 years ago, with a mission to provide both material and spiritual help to the needy, the Salvation Army now receives more money in donations than any other charity in America. With over $726 million in annual income from donations, and with operations throughout the U.S. and the world, the Army is universally respected for the important work it does.

So respected is it, that with hardly a murmur about separation of church and state issues, the state of Michigan has contracted with the Salvation Army to operate a statewide network of homeless shelters. Currently 120 shelters, with an annual budget of $10 million, are administered from the Army's headquarters in Southfield. This four-year-old program has been praised by state government officials and others for its efficiency: it provides a bed and two meals for homeless individuals at a cost of $10 per day.

Some have criticized the Salvation Army, saying that because a large fraction of its budget now comes from government, it is in danger of becoming a captive of government and a lobbyist for higher taxes. The corrupting influence of secular government is a legitimate concern, but so far such criticisms have not been widespread.

A more damaging attack on the Salvation Army has come from the city council of Detroit, where the Army operates 20 shelters. On May 1, 1995, a 25-page city ordinance entitled "To License and Regulate Homeless Shelters" went into effect. Among many other requirements, it stipulates that:

• All staffers be trained in resident complaint and grievance procedures and the special needs of the homeless.

• Ages of homeless must be ascertained, with special requirements for minors, including the requirement that homeless shelter staff ensure that all school-age minor residents are enrolled in, and have the opportunity to attend school. Operators of homeless shelters must also "make every effort" to provide minor residents with recreational activities.

• All medication, except refrigerated and time-sensitive emergency medication such as nitroglycerin and inhalers, must be kept in a locked storage area.

• Homeless shelter staff must keep a log for all prescription medication which indicates the name of the resident, the name of the medication, the prescribed dosage, the time to be taken, and the time actually taken.

• All meal menus must be approved by a dietitian registered with the American Dietetic Association.

For any violation of these rules, the ordinance prescribes fines of up to $500 and up to 90 days in jail. According to Len Krugel, the Divisional Social Services Director who oversees the 120 homeless shelters, no town in Michigan has licensing requirements for homeless shelters that are remotely like those of Detroit. In an interview with this author, he said, "All these requirements cost money, and our budget is $10 a day per person."

"The danger of this ordinance is that it will cause shelters to close," he continued. "Without those shelters, the homeless will be living in abandoned buildings. Because building codes are not enforced, abandoned buildings are very easy to find in Detroit.

"Detroit's licensing requirements for homeless shelters are an unfunded mandate. They require expensive and time-consuming work, but provide no money to pay for it. By threatening the Salvation Army and other homeless shelter operators with fines and jail time, the city council has already forced some shelters to close and one large shelter to move from Detroit to Highland Park," Krugel said.

Consider the irony here. The city of Detroit, with one of the highest tax and regulatory burdens of any city in the nation, manufactures poverty and then makes it ever more difficult for a proven poverty-fighter to undo the damage.

Through its many good works, the Salvation Army has earned the public's respect and support. Let us hope that politicians can respect the Army enough to avoid regulating its shelters out of existence.