ATLANTA (WXIA) -- You probably know that the Salvation Army is well known for giving back to the community.
In full disclosure, 11Alive has partnered with the Salvation Army a number of times, including our annual Holiday Can-a-Thon.
In Atlanta, the organization says 85% of the donations it receives goes to providing services. While that is a good thing, there is another big expenditure that you may not have known about and it might surprise you.
We drove through some nice neighborhoods and saw dozens of well maintained homes, all owned by the Salvation Army. These homes weren't for the needy or the homeless, they were purchased to house Salvation Army officers and are considered parsonages.
"You don't hear about it, it's not advertised. It's not something that's publicly known, I guess," said one woman we talked to on the street.
"It makes me question where is most of the money going that people are donating for the needy?" said another young man, while looking at the pictures of the homes we had visited.
"No local funding, say the Red Kettle money or the United Way money or any of the government funds or the private donations that come to the Salvation Army throughout the year are used to purchase those housing," said Major Todd Hawks, who's in charge the Atlanta Area Command.
He said the money for the houses comes from wills and estates and from planned giving - a gift arranged by someone, legally, to be given to the Salvation Army at a future time, perhaps after death.
You wouldn't know about the houses, unless you knew where to look. The Salvation Army, although, a charitable organization, is also a church and a church is not required to file an annual '990 form' with the IRS, like other charities, outlining how it spends its money.
All the Salvation Army homes, we found, are listed on property tax records. However, we didn't just look at the records, we visited all of the homes just to be sure. We identified 47 homes owned by the Salvation Army in DeKalb, Gwinnett and Fulton Counties with an estimated value of more than 10 million dollars.
Like Major Hawks, Salvation Army officers are ordained ministers, which is why, like some churches, they are provided homes. The size of the house depends on the size of the family.
"My wife and I are both officers in the Salvation Army. We have 3 children and we receive an allowance of 12 hundred dollars on a bi-weekly basis."
That's a combined allowance of $31,200 a year after taxes. Salvation Army officers don't have a lot of expenses because, as we learned, they not only get the houses, they are partially furnished, utilities are paid, as well as gas for the cars they get, like the late model Toyotas we saw in many driveways.
"Salvation Army officers get moved every 3 to 5 years. I can move with a U-Haul rather than, say, a moving company," Hawks said.
Major Hawks answered all our questions and updated our original list of 47 houses, to include 4 more, for a total of 51 in the Atlanta area. And because the Salvation Army is a church, the houses, like all churches, are tax exempt.
A Morningside house in Atlanta that we visited had an estimated value of $700,000. It would normally be taxed at about $10,000 a year.
The Salvation Army only has '8 corps' providing regular Sunday services, so why does it own so many houses, listed as parsonages? We're told it's because its regional headquarters is in Atlanta and the officers minister through community service.
"It's very comforting to know that I can take my family from Atlanta to Charlotte to Washington, or wherever the Army appoints me, where I can have a comfortable place, where I can sleep at night with my family and do the work, that I believe God has called us to do," Hawks said. "Donors trust us to be good stewards with the money."
We should also tell you that the Salvation Army voluntarily provides information to the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance and meets all the standards for an approved charity.
Major Hawks told us the Salvation Army employs 200 civilian employees who do not get houses.