In wake of staff concerns and investigation, Lawrence Community Shelter director is no longer employed there

photo by: Journal-World File Photos

The Lawrence Community Shelter, left, and its former executive director, Renee Kuhl, right.

Updated at 5:38 p.m. Friday

After concerns voiced by Lawrence Community Shelter staffers prompted an investigation into the executive director, Renee Kuhl, the shelter’s board has announced that Kuhl is no longer employed there.

In a response to questions from the Journal-World this week, the president of the shelter’s governing board, Thea Perry, said that Kuhl “is no longer with” the shelter, but did not indicate whether Kuhl was terminated or had resigned. The shelter’s governing board also did not respond to questions regarding the status or conclusion of the investigation and whether it resulted in any action being taken regarding Kuhl’s employment. The board also did not answer whether the shelter paid Kuhl a nearly $50,000 severance payment that she requested.

Concerns regarding management at the shelter came to light in May, after a former manager at the shelter and a current staffer sent letters of concern to elected leaders and the Journal-World about a “toxic” and “hostile” environment for staffers and guests, high staff turnover and negative impacts on people experiencing homelessness. In 2020 and so far in 2021, about 30 people have quit, been fired or otherwise ended their employment with the shelter, and the shelter has been operating at far under its available capacity for two years. The Journal-World reported on the concerns in an article published May 22 after speaking with 11 former and current shelter employees, and has since heard from additional staff members.

Following the publication of the article, the shelter’s governing board announced that it had placed Kuhl on paid administrative leave while an outside investigator conducted an investigation regarding the allegations of the staff members. Around that time, the Journal-World also obtained a copy of a letter from Kuhl to the governing board’s executive committee in which she proposed terms for the end of her employment as director, including getting a severance payment of $48,038, retaining possession of her work laptop and work stool, and securing a recommendation letter from the board for her next job, as well as other terms for the end of her employment and the transition to a new director. Kuhl, who was paid more than $90,000 in 2020, sent the letter once she knew the newspaper was speaking to current and former staffers for the initial article.

The Journal-World asked the governing board’s executive committee whether the shelter agreed to pay Kuhl the $48,038 severance payment and other benefits she requested, or otherwise pay a severance payment or provide other benefits to Kuhl, but did not receive a direct response. Kuhl did not respond to questions about her proposed severance agreement at the time and previously declined an opportunity to comment or answer questions ahead of the initial article, saying she would make a statement to the Journal-World only if the paper agreed before seeing the statement to publish it in full. The newspaper reached out to Kuhl on Friday about the end of her employment but did not receive a response.

The newspaper also asked whether there were any updates regarding the shelter’s search for a new executive director. Perry said in the response that the shelter was working toward hiring a new director and appreciates the patience and hard work of the shelter staff during the transition period.

“We look forward to building on our staff’s work and progress and to continuing to provide safe, dignified shelter and housing for those in need in our community,” Perry said.

Many of the concerns voiced by staff came from the front-line staffers who work with guests, some of whom came to the position because they once experienced homelessness themselves. Common concerns included that front-line staffers were undervalued and not trusted; that management overused punitive measures with employees such as write-ups and behavioral contracts; and that Kuhl at times raised her voice or yelled at staff and guests, or otherwise dealt with guests in ways that weren’t mindful of the fact that many have undergone trauma, among other concerns. Multiple staffers also said employees were written up or fired for criticizing management or bringing up concerns, creating an environment where staff feared losing their jobs for speaking out. One employee was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement after his employment was terminated; he declined to do so.

Other staff concerns related to the operations at the shelter and the level of service the shelter has been providing for people experiencing homelessness. Those concerns included that the shelter temporarily discontinued its daytime hours during the month of May due to high staff turnover and continues to have dozens of empty beds when it’s estimated there are more than 200 people living unsheltered in Lawrence. The shelter has been operating under a new housing-first approach, which focuses on quickly housing people, and some staffers also said they didn’t feel housing first was being practiced as it should be, and it seemed like people were being pushed out the door, at times not placed in safe housing environments, then left without adequate support.

When the concerns were first reported, the shelter’s governing board initially expressed confidence in Kuhl’s leadership but days later announced that it was working to increase capacity at the shelter and that it had placed Kuhl on leave for the investigation.

The shelter previously named Director of Finance and Operations Kenny Yates, who has been with the shelter for nearly six years, as acting director during the investigation. Perry said Friday that Yates, who initially came to the shelter as an AmeriCorps member in August 2015, is planning to leave the organization Aug. 6. She said Yates has been an essential and respected member of the team and that the board wishes him well in his future endeavors.

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