Following staff concerns, director of Lawrence Community Shelter put on administrative leave
photo by: Elvyn Jones
The executive director of the local homeless shelter has been put on paid administrative leave after some staff members spoke out regarding the environment and operations at the shelter.
Several former and current shelter staffers voiced concerns to the Journal-World about high staff turnover, a “toxic” and “hostile” environment for both staff and guests, a recent decision to temporarily discontinue daytime shelter hours during the month of May, and that the shelter continues to operate at less than half of its available capacity while more than 200 people remain unsheltered in Lawrence. Two former employees also reached out to local leaders with their concerns, in addition to the newspaper.
In a statement provided to the Journal-World on Tuesday afternoon, Thea Perry, president of the shelter’s board of directors, said that the board had placed Executive Director Renee Kuhl on paid administrative leave while an independent, outside investigator conducts an investigation regarding the allegations of the staff members.
“The LCS Board of directors takes the allegations published in the Lawrence Journal-World on May 22, 2021 seriously as they directly impact both our staff members and the community we serve,” Perry said in the statement. The statement went on to say that the board would not be commenting further during the investigation.
As the Journal-World reported, in 2020 and so far in 2021, about 30 people have quit, been fired or otherwise ended their employment with the shelter, according to lists compiled by former and current shelter staff. The newspaper heard from 11 former and current staff members, and common concerns included that 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 fired for criticizing management or bringing up concerns, creating an environment where employees fear losing their jobs for speaking out.
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. 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 it 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.
In a statement in response to the concerns voiced by the staff who contacted the Journal-World, members of the shelter’s governing board previously 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, noting financial stability and other improvements at the shelter during her tenure, and adding it would continue to “support her growth as a leader.”
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.