Lawrence Community Shelter plans to add staff, reopen daytime shelter hours; acting director named during investigation of current director

photo by: Jackson Barton

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

After recently dropping to as few as four frontline staffers, the Lawrence Community Shelter is in the process of adding employees and will be able to reopen during daytime hours this coming week, the shelter board’s leader said.

Additionally, the board has named the shelter’s finance and operations director as the new acting leader while an outside investigator looks into allegations against the current executive director, Renee Kuhl.

In 2020 and so far in 2021, about 30 people have quit, been fired or otherwise ended their employment with the shelter, and some staff members recently spoke out regarding the facility’s environment and operations. Two current staff members have since told the Journal-World that the shelter had dropped down to four frontline staffers, and that it was planning to potentially use a private security company to fill overnight coverage gaps at the facility, which is typically open 24/7. The staff page on the shelter’s website currently lists 10 frontline staffers, or Direct Service Advocates.

Due to the low staffing levels and a need to conduct training, 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. Additionally, the shelter continues to operate at less than half of its available capacity while more than 200 people remain unsheltered in Lawrence.

But shelter leaders now say that the facility’s hours and the number of people it can serve will both be increasing soon.

In a statement provided to the Journal-World on Saturday afternoon, Thea Perry, president of the shelter’s board of directors, said that the shelter would be able to reopen its daytime hours on June 1 as initially planned. Perry said that in the past week, the shelter had increased both full-time and part-time frontline staff, “with additional hires in the pipeline.” She did not specify how many employees the shelter had hired.

Perry said it was possible the shelter might still need to hire a private security company, but that the board was optimistic that it wouldn’t be necessary.

“The LCS board members are committed to providing a safe and secure environment for our staff and guests by maintaining adequate staffing levels, and we have taken appropriate steps to engage outside support as needed for these efforts,” Perry said.

The Journal-World asked whether there would be any stipulations if the shelter does have to hire private security and whether the security personnel would be armed. Perry said that in the event that supplemental overnight security becomes necessary, it would be on a short-term basis, and those individuals would be unarmed and would only interact with guests at the request of permanent shelter staff.

Perry also said that like many other employers, the shelter has found it a challenge to recruit and retain employees at this time and must contend with potential staff shortages.

The Journal-World previously reported that it recently spoke with 11 former and current staff members at the shelter, who said that a “toxic” and “hostile” environment for both staff and guests under Kuhl was a main source of the shelter’s high turnover. They also expressed concern that the turnover rate was affecting the daytime service levels and how many people the shelter can serve.

On Tuesday, the board announced that it had placed Kuhl on paid administrative leave while an independent, outside investigator conducts an investigation regarding the allegations of the staff members.

Perry said Saturday that Director of Finance and Operations Kenny Yates, who has been with the shelter for nearly six years, will serve as acting director during the investigation.

Thus far, the board has not responded to the Journal-World’s questions regarding who is doing the investigation and what the timeframe for the investigation will be. It also did not immediately respond to a request for the shelter’s public tax forms for 2019 and 2020. Federal law requires that the public be able to inspect a nonprofit’s 990 Form, which provides information about the nonprofit’s activities, governance and finances.

The shelter has the capacity to serve 125 people most of the time and 140 people during cold weather, but since August 2019 it has been operating well below those numbers.

Regarding the capacity issues, Perry said that the shelter was in the process of hiring additional managers to provide necessary support and that the shelter would be able to serve more people in the coming months. Specifically, she said that as support became available, the limit on the number of guests in the main shelter building would be raised from 40 people to 60 people. She said the shelter’s recently completed tiny home project, Monarch Village, would require additional outfitting, such as security lighting, followed by a brief pilot program with three families. Once it’s completed, Monarch Village will shelter up to 48 individuals.


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