Former & current staff and residents speak out about conditions at Salvation Army shelter

Mounting strain at the local Salvation Army shelter culminated in a staff walk-out at the beginning of February. Photo by Bridget Manley.

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Understaffing at the Salvation Army emergency shelter in Harrisonburg is creating potentially dangerous conditions for those who work or stay there, according to several current and former staff and residents.

With essential positions like shelter monitor – responsible for ensuring residents’ safety – understaffed, for example, many safety precautions have been neglected. And the former staff members say those concerns didn’t lead to changes after raising the issues with Capts. Harold and Eunice Gitau, who oversee the Salvation Army’s local shelter, church and food pantry.

The Gitaus did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Several sources tell The Citizen that in the last few months, people with weapons have been admitted to the shelter, as have intoxicated people, while background checks and police passes have not always been performed to ensure the safety of others staying there.

Meanwhile, regional Salvation Army officials said they were not aware of problems at the Harrisonburg shelter until a “staff walkout” at the beginning of February and are working to re-staff the facility. But they also said that there is no paperwork to support the claims made by former staff, and insist the staffing issues were a result of the resignations of several employees in February.

Understaffing issues

Because it is not a “low-barrier” shelter, the Salvation Army sets rules about who can stay, in order to protect residents, including families with children.

Heather Austin, who worked as program manager at the shelter in 2021 and 2022, said to stay there, a person must obtain a pass from the Harrisonburg Police Department to ensure that they do not have any outstanding warrants. Staff must then check the National Sex Offender Registry to make sure each person is not a registered sex offender. And prospective residents’ belongings must be searched for weapons, alcohol and drugs before they are allowed to stay.

Because of understaffing, Austin said, many of those processes have broken down recently, allowing people to stay who might be intoxicated, registered sex offenders, in possession of weapons or without the required police passes.

Dena Hunt, who worked as a shelter monitor this past winter, said during a shift she cross-checked a sex offender registry and discovered the name of a resident. Hunt said the check had not previously been done by staff, and the person was removed from the facility shortly thereafter.

A shift staff report dated Jan. 26 shows that a person was allowed to into the shelter without a police pass.

David Anderson, the Salvation Army’s divisional director of social services, told The Citizen that the district headquarters never received any reports of violations, and if violations had occurred, his office would have been made aware through incident reports.

When incidents occur in a shelter, Anderson said, staff are required to file report, which are sent to the supervisor and then filed at the local office. If the police are involved, a “critical incident report” is required, which includes alerting the district headquarters and having multiple staff respond.

Anderson said because no incident reports are on file, it makes it hard to investigate claims of policy violations at the Harrisonburg shelter.

“Since the alleged events were first brought to The Army’s attention at the time of resignation, and since there is no proper documentation to prove or disprove those allegations, the investigation is deemed burdensome and inconclusive,” Anderson said in a subsequent email.

Austin said she doesn’t recall, “the Gitaus ever telling me one time to write an incident report when I reported incidents with residents or staff [to them].” 

When she started the job in July, Austin said she was handed the keys and given no training in the operations.

“There was no direction,” Austin said. “None.”

Hunt said because of understaffing, she had to work multiple double shifts, resulting in 16-hour days throughout the week. When the temperature dropped below freezing, the shelter remained open during the day so residents could stay warm.

On one day after she started work at 9 a.m., Hunt said she was asked at midnight if she could stay for a third shift.

“One of the captains, who I hardly ever saw, asked me if I could stay another shift,” Hunt said. “I said, ‘Well, that’s 24 hours, so I cannot.’”

Hunt said the residents were then moved to a hotel.

The ideal number of shelter monitors, according to multiple current and former staff, is five to seven people. Currently, only two monitors on staff, and two more have recently been hired.

Because of understaffing in February and March, multiple employees and residents confirmed that the Gitaus decided to move everyone at the shelter to hotels on the weekends. Residents continue to be housed in hotels on weekends due to the staffing shortage.

Screen capture of a police log showing multiple calls to the shelter in February

One current employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of termination, said police were called to the shelter multiple times in February, including once for a fistfight.

The Harrisonburg Police Department confirmed receiving multiple calls during the month of February, including calls for disorderly conduct and drunk in public incidents.

Martha Barber worked at the shelter as a monitor for 14 years. She left in November, saying that she was burned out.

Barber said staff were repeatedly asked to work multiple shifts, and on many nights, the person who was supposed to work the next shift wouldn’t arrive. Barber said she would try to call leadership for help, but no one would answer the phone. The staff who were on duty would have to stay and work extra shifts because there was no one to relieve them.

Hunt said most shelter monitors make minimum wage.

Anderson, from the Salvation Army’s district office, said it is not a captain’s duty to staff the shelter when there are no employees. Captains run multiple Salvation Army programs, including the food donations programs, volunteer programs, ministry and the shelter.

“The Captains look over all of those programs,” Anderson said. “They are not directly responsible to the shelter. They are the overall supervisors who the manager reports to. So when the manager needs additional support, resources, then she reaches out to the Captain for such support and resources and those supports are provided to the shelter. But they do not run the day-to-day operations of the shelter at all.”

A photo taken by a current shelter resident shows an example of physical disrepair at the building.

Physical conditions of the shelter deteriorating

One of the shelter’s residents, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing shelter, said physical conditions in the shelter are deteriorating and requests for repairs have, so far, not resulted in changes.

Reports of mold, a lack of hot water in the women’s bathrooms, broken laundry machines have taken months to be addressed, according to multiple sources. Residents said they were told that hot water in the women’s showers was “not a priority.”

The shelter, which can house 40 people, is intended for men, women and families with children all in separate dorm rooms. Currently, it houses 20 people, and no families are being admitted. 

Anderson said that is partly because of renovations to areas of the shelter but also because of COVID protocols to keep residents safe.

Anderson confirmed that there have been maintenance problems at the shelter, but said the organization now has funding to repair its facilities and that work has started.

“During the holidays, we solicited funds, received funds, and sent funds to the Harrisonburg Corps for those renovations to take place,” Anderson said. “The Gitaus contacted a contracting company and set up to make those repairs. Some of the repairs have been done.”

The shelter is partially funded by local tax dollars.

The City of Harrisonburg has given the Salvation Army $25,000 every year since 2013, except for 2014 when it gave the shelter $75,000, according to city spokesman Michael Parks. The city gave shelter an additional $20,937 in 2013-14 and $10,227 in 2018-2019 in Community Development Block Grant Funds.

Parks said funding is usually directed at “general operations,” adding that the city would not have authority to inspect the shelter unless it was violating city code.

“The City is not a regulatory agent for how The Salvation Army operates as it pertains to the services they offer,” Parks said in an email.

Anderson said the responsibility for the wellbeing of shelter employees and residents lay with staff who decided to leave, not local leadership. 

“In the [resignation] email to The Salvation Army, most of the allegations against the shelter were concerns with staff under the employee’s supervision. She had the authority to address those issues during her tenure,” Anderson said in the follow-up email.

Austin, Hunt, Barber and others said they are speaking publicly because they fear for the safety of the residents and staff. They said neglect of the operations of the shelter are leading to dangerous conditions, and they want that to change.

Austin said she reached out multiple times for support from the captains and did not receive it and always brought issues to the attention of the captains. She said her pleas yielded no responses.  

“What happens when the manager reaches out and supports are not provided? That is the point we are all making,” Austin said. “They did not provide support. Not in training, communication, supplies…anything.”

Hunt also said she wants to see improvements for the guests.

“I want the conditions to change for the better. I want them to be safe,” Hunt said. “I want them to be warm, and have somewhere to stay safely at nighttime.”

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