Former staffers and a client of the Salvation Army’s adult addiction recovery program picketed Friday outside the agency’s thrift store on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, protesting what they say has been a discouraging and demeaning atmosphere since a new captain arrived last summer.

They say dozens of men have left the program since Capt. Dennis Earnhardt instituted dress and hair codes and issued orders to cover tattoos, along with other restrictions.

Earnhardt acknowledged that some measures — one of which resulted in a discrimination finding by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights — may have gone too far. But he said the program is doing plenty of good.

“Some people like it, and some don’t,” he said. “But when men come to me to turn their lives around, I’m very successful at it.”

Dave Johnson, a counselor who was fired in August after 12 years at the center, said the atmosphere of the program under Earnhardt is “hostile” and “not conducive to any kind of rehab. Guys are like, ‘I’d rather go to jail.’

“They’re just being driven away,” Johnson said Friday as he and three others carried signs calling for Earnhardt to step down. “They need someone who has a heart.”

Johnson has organized several protests in recent weeks at the Salvation Army offices at 900 N. 4th St. in Minneapolis. But he said that the Black Friday protest may be the last after seeing dwindling crowds going into the store, which supports the recovery program.

“This is dead,” added former store manager Tricia Hutton, who resigned from her job at a St. Paul Salvation Army store last month to protest what she said is rigid leadership. “I think the word has been out. At least some of the people who are donating are leaving and saying they’ll take it somewhere else.”

The money people toss into red Salvation Army kettles during the holiday season, Johnson said, is not used to support the rehabilitation center.

But Johnson, who added that he has landed another job and has nothing to gain by organizing the protests, said he hopes that any reductions in separate donations to the rehab center’s activities will prompt a change in leadership to help out the men who are still in the program.

“I’m going to stand up for these guys,” he said. “This is a tragedy what’s taking place.”

In July, shortly after Earnhardt’s arrival, the state Department of Human Rights got involved, filing a discrimination complaint on behalf of “numerous former employees” of the Adult Rehabilitation Center who had been fired for wearing dreadlocks, cornrows and other African-American hairstyles. The Salvation Army’s ban on those looks was discriminatory “on its face,” Human Hights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey asserted.

In August, the Salvation Army and human rights commission reached an agreement in which the Salvation Army didn’t admit it violated its employees’ legal rights but agreed to rehire them with back pay and provide training for supervisors in provisions of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Food, shelter, work, class

The adult rehabilitation center enrolls adult men with drug and alcohol addictions, many of whom come to the program under court order or as a parole or early prison release program. Participants are housed and fed and given 40 hours of work a week, often in Salvation Army used clothing stores, and must participate in classes addressing addiction and recovery.

“What we’re trying to do with the men who come to us, many of whom have social skills issues, is not only to help them change inside but in how they present themselves in the community and the workplace,” Earnhardt said.

He said he has been trying to bring the program into agreement with national Salvation Army policies. The hair restriction, he said, was the result of a supervisor’s misinterpretation.

“No discrimination was intended or implied,” he said.

Meanwhile, employees as well as rehab participants, known as “beneficiaries,” cannot wear shorts at work, must wear shirts with collars and must cover tattoos such as swastikas and pentagrams that are “objectionable,” Earnhardt said. That isn’t unlike many corporations, he said.

But Johnson and others said the rules are demeaning, with workers wearing long pants while working in summer in warehouses without air conditioning.

Prison preferable?

Bob Cremeans, 35, of Minneapolis, a licensed tattoo artist, said he had to wear bandages to cover facial tattoos and turtlenecks to cover tattoos on his neck, not to mention long sleeves and gloves, during last July’s heat. He stuck with it because he was about to complete a six-month program.

“If I wasn’t court-ordered to be there, I would have left,” he said. The program “did great things for me, but I would do my prison time before I’d go back.”

He said that the number of beneficiaries dropped from 143 to 38 during his six months, numbers close to what Johnson said his friends still working in the program report.

But Earnhardt said that since July, enrollment has fallen only from 94 to “70 or 80.” Between July 1 and Sept. 30, 145 men either graduated or left, compared with 142 over the same period last year, he added.