After staff began to speak out, Lawrence Community Shelter director made plans to leave her position, requested nearly $50,000 in severance

photo by: Journal-World File Photos

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

After former and current staff at the Lawrence Community Shelter began bringing forward concerns about the homeless shelter’s environment and capacity, the shelter’s director informed its governing board that she desired to leave her position and requested close to $50,000 in severance.

The Journal-World recently obtained a copy of a letter from Renee Kuhl, the shelter’s executive director, to the governing board’s executive committee in which she proposes terms for the end of her employment as director, including getting a severance payment of about $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 sent the letter on May 20, 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. 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.

In her letter to the governing board, Kuhl referred to the upcoming publication of the article and called the concerns voiced by staffers “personal attacks.” Kuhl characterizes one of the letters as “criminal slander” that has tarnished her professional reputation, and calls the other staffers who spoke out “co-conspirators.” She describes the shelter as “thriving” and states that her sense is that the high profile generated by her success will lead to further harassment and attacks.

“I have endured multiple instances of harassment in the workplace and unfair, targeted attacks,” Kuhl wrote. “I don’t believe that these types of attacks are a normal part of serving in a charitable leadership role, especially when one is succeeding in the level that I am.”

Kuhl states in the letter that she must now transition from her role at the shelter, but specifically states that the letter and the proposed terms for her severance agreement should not be considered a unilateral resignation. Kuhl proposes in the letter that her last day of employment be July 30, and that she will use the remaining days in her position to “manage (her) own transition” and assist the board as it may request with the selection, training and onboarding of an interim director.

Kuhl, who was paid more than $90,000 in 2020, asks in the letter that she be paid $48,037.78 in severance, representing six months of her salary and a payout of her four remaining weeks of vacation. She also states that she should retain possession of her work laptop and work stool and that the board should provide her a recommendation letter to take to her next job. She agrees in the letter to make herself available to the board via Zoom or phone during the severance period. The letter concludes by asking that the board’s executive committee keep the details of the agreement confidential until the terms are established.

The Journal-World sent several questions to the board’s executive committee regarding the letter. Those included whether the board has any comment or position on the terms of Kuhl’s proposed severance agreement and whether the board has approved a severance agreement for Kuhl. Since Kuhl explicitly states that her letter does not constitute a resignation, the newspaper also asked if there was anything in Kuhl’s employment contract that obligates the shelter to pay her a severance if she resigns. The board responded that it did not have a comment.

The Journal-World also reached out to Kuhl and asked what led her to decide to end her employment at the shelter. The newspaper also asked whether it was her perspective that the terms she proposed for the agreement, such as the severance payment of $48,037.78 and that she would retain her work laptop and stool, were justified. Kuhl had not responded as of Thursday afternoon.

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 are undervalued and not trusted; that management overuses punitive measures with employees such as write-ups and behavioral contracts; and that Kuhl at times raises her voice or yells at staff and guests, or otherwise deals with guests in ways that aren’t mindful of the fact that many have undergone trauma, among other concerns. Multiple staffers also said employees are written up or fired for criticizing management or bringing up concerns, creating an environment where staff fear 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, and then left without adequate support.

In the wake of the concerns, 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 paid administrative leave while an independent, outside investigator conducts an investigation regarding the allegations of the staff members. That investigation is ongoing.

The board has named the shelter’s finance and operations director as the new acting leader pending the investigation.

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