Staff speaks out about high staff turnover and limited capacity at Lawrence Community Shelter

photo by: Jackson Barton

The Lawrence Community Shelter is pictured Friday Aug. 9, 2019.

Amid high staff turnover and limited services at the Lawrence Community Shelter, some former and current shelter staff are voicing concerns that the organization is failing both its staff and those it’s meant to help.

According to lists compiled by former and current shelter staff, about 30 people have quit, been fired or otherwise ended their employment with the shelter in 2020 and so far in 2021. That includes about five people — roughly a quarter of the staff — in approximately the past month, and in an effort to head off more resignations among the shelter’s frontline staffers, sources say the shelter announced it would offer bonuses to get those who remain to stay.

Over the past two weeks, the Journal-World has heard from 11 former and current shelter employees, including a former manager, who expressed concerns about the environment or operations of the shelter. Those concerns include what has been described as a “toxic” or “hostile” atmosphere for both staff and guests, where employees are at times yelled at for perceived mistakes and fear retaliation for speaking up. Multiple staffers also voiced concern that the high turnover is affecting the level of service at the shelter, which this month temporarily closed to most guests during the day, and questioned why the shelter continues to have dozens of empty beds when it’s estimated there are more than 200 people living unsheltered in Lawrence. The shelter has capacity to serve 125 people, but right now is only serving 40, far fewer beds than were available in 2009 before a need for more shelter space led to the opening of the shelter’s current facility in eastern Lawrence in late 2012.

The former manager, who has been in the social service sector for more than 20 years and did not want their name published out of fear of retaliation, recently emailed a letter detailing concerns about a “toxic” work environment to members of the LCS board, local elected leaders and the newspaper, among others. The letter asks that action be taken to further investigate the behavior of the shelter’s executive director, Renee Kuhl. The former manager, who worked at the shelter for about one year and held two different management positions that involved working directly with frontline staffers and clients, said they sent the letter in part because when they raised concerns, the issues were not addressed and instead they were disciplined.

“Even though I am no longer with the organization, I feel that I have a sense of responsibility and liability on behalf of the clients and the staff who are currently still there to speak up,” the former manager told the Journal-World.

In a statement, members of the shelter’s governing board said the board values all staff and is always looking to improve staff’s experience. Regarding capacity, the statement said that amid the shelter’s new housing-first approach, which focuses on quickly housing people, it will also work to accommodate more guests. The board also expressed confidence in Kuhl, adding it would continue to “support her growth as a leader.” Kuhl declined an opportunity to comment or answer questions for this article and said 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 did not accept those conditions, noting that it can’t agree to publish anything sight unseen.

Turnover and work environment

Among the 11 staff members, nine former and two current, a number of common concerns arose.

Those included that the frontline staffers who work with guests — some of whom came to the position because they once experienced homelessness themselves — 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 clients, or otherwise deals with clients 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 otherwise disciplined for criticizing management or bringing up concerns, creating an environment where staff fear losing their jobs for speaking out.

The former manager said that after they voiced concerns about Kuhl’s approach and how she was treating staff and clients to their direct supervisor and Kuhl herself, they were written up and put on probation. The former manager ultimately decided to leave their position after that, as they sensed they would soon be forced out as others had been.

“I feel a lot of staff have learned that they need to just keep their head down and shut up and not vocalize any commentary to (Kuhl), because if they do it will not bode well for them,” the former manager said.

A current staffer, who did not want their name published out of fear of losing their job, voiced similar concerns and said apart from not being able to provide critical feedback to management, they did not feel that they have an open ear on the shelter’s governing board because it seems the board’s president, Thea Perry, is close to Kuhl and approves of her leadership. In addition to sending their concerns to the newspaper, the current staffer said they also reached out to Mayor Brad Finkeldei.

“In this case, staff does not have a voice above Renee to confide in,” the staffer said. “There is nobody to go to above Renee to report all of the concerns against her, because she has befriended the president of the board.”

The former manager also said that a group of staffers sent a letter with concerns about Kuhl to Perry sometime in the spring of 2020, but that there has been no difference in behavior and the staff member who spearheaded the letter was “pushed out.” The board did not directly respond to a question from the Journal-World about what action was taken after that letter was sent.

Another current employee said they shared the concerns voiced by other former and current employees, but that they were too afraid to say more or publish their position in fear that management would be able to identify them by their comments and they would lose their job. They did express serious concern about the number of employees who have left the shelter.

Some former employees also agreed to have their names published. Many but not all of those who have left or had their employment ended have been the Direct Service Advocates, or DSAs, who monitor the guests at the shelter during both daytime and overnight shifts, and who are the first to respond when issues arise.

That includes Hannah Dade, who described the work atmosphere as “hostile” and said that the way Kuhl at times treated staffers and guests was harmful. Apart from the toll on staff, Dade said the instances when Kuhl would raise her voice and be overbearing when trying to address issues with guests damaged the trust and relationships that frontline staffers worked hard to build.

“She was unprofessional, unkind, threatening and manipulative, and carried that same energy out to the floor,” Dade said.

Frank Chartier, who worked at the shelter for about five years, said when he first started there were several frontline staff members who had been there a long time, and the environment at that time was more supportive than punitive. Chartier — who said he was told he was being laid off because his position was being eliminated, which seemed to him untrue — said that under the current management the hourly employees were “completely devalued as human beings.” Chartier said running the shelter isn’t like running a corporation, and the board needed to provide leadership that knows how to run a social service organization.

“Because the toxicity doesn’t rest with just Renee, it’s a system thing,” Chartier said. “Because you either tolerate it, join it or go away.”

Another former employee, Scotty Groeneveld, who only stayed about two months before quitting, also expressed concerns about the environment and treatment of staff and guests. He said he felt frontline staff and guests alike were punished unfairly or rashly, which for some guests meant they were immediately kicked out or banned from the shelter after an incident. Groeneveld also shared his exit interview with the Journal-World, in which he described what he thought needed to happen to address the turnover of the frontline staffers.

Groeneveld told the Journal-World and wrote in his exit interview that when staffers have attempted to bring up issues, they have been fired for insubordination. He said there needs to be trust between the management and frontline staffers, and staffers need to be allowed to give critical feedback about how the program operates if the program is to improve.

“People in the past have tried to stand up to management and enact some type of meaningful change, and they were fired,” Groeneveld said.

The current staffer told the Journal-World that the most recent employee to put in their notice did so on Thursday. The current staffer said in an attempt to stop more employees from leaving, management recently announced it would provide additional pay to the frontline staffers for staying on board. The staffer said employees were told they would receive $250 per week for each week they stay on staff in the month of June.

Response to turnover concerns

Board members provided a statement to the Journal-World but did not specifically respond to questions about whether remaining staffers had been offered extra pay for June; what staff turnover has been in 2020 and 2021 and how that compares with past years; or provide a specific response to concerns that staffers have been retaliated against for voicing criticism.

The Journal-World also asked board members whether they think the level of turnover indicates there are systemic issues with management at the shelter that need to be addressed, and what their response is to concerns expressed by some employees about the atmosphere for staff and clients.

In a statement signed by Board Chair Perry, Vice Chair Ahsan Latif, Secretary Isabel Johnson and Treasurer Cooper Overstreet, the board members said the shelter has undergone “systemic and necessary changes in the past two years,” and that the board is grateful to Kuhl for her commitment to accountability and the promotion of a healthier, better informed, and more professional environment at the shelter. After the Journal-World shared more details about the common concerns expressed by the staffers who contacted the newspaper, an additional statement provided by the board said that work at the shelter is difficult and can be emotionally exhausting, and there is always going to be a certain amount of turnover, and that the pandemic had added to that.

“As a Board we are always looking for ways to improve Staff’s experience and plan to continue those discussions and efforts,” the statement reads.

The initial statement said the board had full faith in Kuhl and that it will “continue to support her growth as a leader in our shelter, in our community, and in her field.” It noted that under Kuhl’s leadership, the shelter has met its goals with respect to financial stability years ahead of schedule, and rather than its usual austerity, is creating an endowment to ensure a sustainable future.

Kuhl has served as executive director since September 2019. She is the shelter’s fifth executive director since its longtime leader, Loring Henderson, retired in May 2014.

The additional statement in response to the more specific concerns said the board is not involved in day-to-day management of the shelter, but does take seriously its role in interviewing, vetting and hiring the shelter’s executive director. It said the board continually reviews the director’s performance and that those efforts incorporate feedback from staff, volunteers and guests.

Both the City of Lawrence and Douglas County provide the shelter significant funding, with hundreds of thousands in taxpayer money being provided to the shelter in 2020. Both local governments also have staff members on the shelter’s board in ex-officio capacity.

Finkeldei, who was sent both the letter from the former manager and concerns from the current staffer, said that he had asked the city’s ex-officio board member to look into the issues raised.

Regarding the concerns with the treatment of shelter staff and clients, Finkeldei said to a certain extent the shelter is essentially a vendor that the city helps pay to perform a service, and like any vendor it is important to him how they treat their employees or other workplace issues. However he said there is a line between personnel and public concerns, and he was trusting the board to address the issues.

“We have to be careful with that,” Finkeldei said. “They have a board of directors that operates them. I trust them to do their jobs and look into those sorts of things.”

Douglas County Commissioner Patrick Kelly, one of the recipients of the letter from the former manager, said in a statement to the Journal-World that personnel issues are under the purview of the shelter’s board and, in his opinion, it would be inappropriate for him to comment regarding the letter. The county also has an ex-officio staff member on the board, and Kelly said that he had visited with that staff member and believes the board is aware of the concerns.

“I intend to stay apprised of the situation while honoring the Board of Directors’ authority and responsibility regarding personnel issues at the Lawrence Community Shelter,” Kelly said.

The Journal-World also contacted Douglas County Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid, another recipient of the letter, who said she did not have any comments to offer.

Shelter capacity

The staff turnover has been affecting the level of service the shelter is able to provide, and some staffers are not satisfied that the shelter is helping as many people experiencing homelessness as it could. Organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness estimate there are more than 200 unsheltered people in Lawrence, and there are various encampments in city parks, along the Kansas River and in other locations throughout the city.

As the Journal-World reported two weeks ago, after the recent loss of five employees, shelter leadership decided to temporarily close the building to guests during the day for the month of May, with the exception of guests with a case management appointment. Some frontline staffers opposed that daytime closure and offered to take extra shifts to prevent it. Sources said that after the decision was ultimately made, more staff members resigned.

Meghan Bahn, the shelter’s director of community engagement, said earlier this month that the daytime closure was in part to conduct staff training for both current and new staff, and that it would remain in place only for the month of May. She said the plan was to reopen daytime access to the shelter in June following the training.

The daytime closure comes amid already reduced capacity at the shelter. The shelter has the capacity to serve 125 people most of the time and 140 people during cold weather, but for nearly two years has been operating well below those numbers.

The shelter originally reduced its capacity to 65 people in August 2019, amid budget issues and changes to its staffing model following an outside review commissioned by the city and county, and then further reduced the number of people housed at its building in eastern Lawrence to a maximum of 40 people amid the coronavirus pandemic. The shelter received federal coronavirus relief funding to help operate a temporary hotel shelter program during the worst of the pandemic, which allowed it to serve additional guests beyond those allowed at its facility, but that program ended April 1. Since then, staffers who spoke to the Journal-World said no definite commitment has been made to run the shelter at full capacity again.

Even above her concerns about the work environment, Dade said her biggest concern was when capacity would go back up so that more people could be provided shelter. Dade said she was working at the shelter in 2019 when the shelter initially cut its capacity from 125 people down to 65, and that the effect on people was profound.

“It was heartbreaking to have to tell 60 people that they had to find somewhere to go in just a couple weeks,” Dade said. “I had people coming to me every day like sobbing and begging me to try to find somewhere that they could go. I had people coming to the door when it was 2 degrees.”

Chartier, the staffer who had been at the shelter for five years, said Kuhl has said the shelter is “never” going back up to the full capacity of 125 for any reason. Chartier said in years past, the shelter used to try to provide beds for as many people as possible, especially during the winter months, and having to turn people away when there were so many open beds had been difficult for him.

“Nobody wants to turn somebody away in the middle of winter,” Chartier said. “This winter, during the cold snap, I had to turn away like three people. And they didn’t care. They said we’re not going above the 40.”

The current staffer said management at one point told employees that the shelter would return to serving 60 guests in April, and slowly work its way up, but that has not happened. The staffer said even though many if not all of the staff and guests are vaccinated, the shelter continues to have a maximum of 40 guests and to leave dozens of beds empty.

“Now we are at the end of May and we still aren’t even allowed to go up to 41,” the staffer said. “… We had like 20 people during COVID. We have slowly only let in 20 more. Meanwhile, we have hundreds of unhoused persons living in Lawrence. Bert Nash (Community Mental Health Center) outreach is amazing, but they don’t provide actual emergency shelter, which is ultimately what people need.”

The shelter had a ribbon cutting on May 15 for a cluster of 12 tiny homes, Monarch Village, located behind the shelter’s main building. Those structures have the ability to house a maximum of 46 additional people, and the shelter has proposed a second 12-unit tiny home village for another area on its property. With both projects, the shelter did not request to increase the total capacity allowed on the site beyond the 125. When asked when the tiny homes would be fully occupied, Bahn told the Journal-World during a recent tour that there were still security issues to work out, as far as how the area would be monitored, and there were no guests yet slated to move in. She said families would start moving in slowly on a staggered basis, and there was no date for when all the homes might be occupied. Regarding capacity at the shelter’s main building, Bahn said the shelter eventually intends to increase the number of people inside the main building from 40 to 60 as more in the community are vaccinated.

Whether 40 or 60, or something somewhat beyond, the number of guests being served at the shelter’s main building is far fewer than the 125 regular capacity or 140 wintertime capacity envisioned when donor and other support helped raise the money to move the shelter to its larger location in eastern Lawrence in late 2012. The campaign for a larger facility was sparked in 2009, when The Salvation Army announced it was going to close its shelter and focus more on housing a handful of homeless families. At the time, Lawrence had 73 shelter beds, consisting of 42 at The Salvation Army and 31 at the Lawrence Community Shelter, which at the time was located near downtown Lawrence.

Response to capacity concerns

However, the board says the lower capacity does not necessarily mean the organization is helping fewer people.

Since the initial capacity reduction in August 2019, the shelter has adopted a new approach known as housing first, which focuses on minimizing the time people experiencing homelessness stay at the shelter and getting them into their own housing as quickly as possible.

In response to the capacity concerns voiced by staffers, the board said that despite the challenges of the pandemic the shelter has doubled the rate at which it is placing guests in permanent housing, and that is an important metric in its mission.

“As we build up our successful Housing First programming, a best practice amongst homeless providers across the country, we measure success in our mission by how many people are placed safely in their own homes,” the initial statement says.

The additional statement goes on to indicate that the number of guests served at the shelter is in direct relation with how many guests the board feels staff can safely handle. More specifically, the statement says prior to the pandemic, and even more so given the difficulties the pandemic presented, the board determined the shelter should use its limited budget to emphasize providing a safe and secure environment to the guests living at the shelter.

“We believe it would be irresponsible to admit more guests than we can safely provide with shelter,” the statement says. “This involved ensuring the ratio of guests to staff was more manageable and training staff to be better equipped to serve that mission.”

The statement goes on to say that the board believes staff can provide a safe and supportive environment for the 40 guests the shelter currently has, but that the board will work to make efforts and changes to accommodate guests who would join the shelter staying at Monarch Village. The statement says the organization is “constantly reexamining” its capabilities to provide shelter and will continue to do so consistent with the levels of support it receives from the community and supporters.

Finkeldei noted the housing-first approach, and said he knows there is probably tension between the frontline service providers and management about how that approach is implemented. Still, he said he said he thinks there is a need to have in the range of 100-plus beds available at the shelter, or in the alternative at other local programs that provide emergency shelter. He said his understanding was that the shelter was working toward getting back to a higher number, and at one point his understanding was that it was waiting for some facility improvements that have been planned and federally funded, but he hadn’t heard a more recent update.

“To the extent that there was another reason that I’m unaware of that they’re keeping the numbers low, I would certainly be interested in knowing that and having that discussion about how we could get those numbers up,” Finkeldei said. “Is that a management decision, is that a funding decision, is that a construction decision?”

In response to questions about the capacity concerns voiced by some shelter employees, Kelly said the pandemic has accelerated and accentuated the community’s housing needs, and he understands calls for quick solutions. But he said systemwide solutions are never quick, and he appreciates the many organizations and community members that are working together to develop an integrated, communitywide response to this problem, and that there can be resistance to change.

“Addressing the housing concerns in Lawrence and Douglas County is a complex issue,” Kelly said. “In order to make progress, we will need to examine our data and invest in systemwide strategies such as securing housing resources, not just emergency shelter. Any time we adjust strategies you can expect there will be some who wish to cling to past practice.”

While former and current shelter employees who spoke to the Journal-World were not necessarily opposed to the housing-first approach, some said they didn’t see it as a reason to leave so many people unsheltered and had concerns that the shelter was not ensuring those who had been “rapidly rehoused” had the support necessary to prevent them from quickly becoming homeless again or suffering other issues. Multiple staffers said they feel there is too much emphasis on the rehousing rate, to the detriment of those left unsheltered in the community.

Dade and Chartier said they didn’t feel like 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. Groeneveld said the shelter’s recent focus on rehousing people rapidly was fine to an extent, but it shouldn’t be to the detriment of those left outside the shelter’s doors.

“I love the homeless community and what the shelter could be, but right now it’s lost its way,” Groeneveld said.

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