By Bridget Manley, publisher
As the Salvation Army grapples with allegations of mismanagement at Harrisonburg’s emergency shelter on Jefferson Street, the Salvation Army’s regional division has launched an investigation and has suspended the shelter’s operations.
Maj. Bobby Westmoreland, the general secretary for the Salvation Army Potomac Division, told The Citizen that current residents of the shelter will be housed at a local hotel while the shelter is closed until the investigation concludes. Shelter monitors, who staff the shelter, will still be employed and will help shelter residents at the hotel.
“What we wanted to do immediately was make sure [the shelter residents] had a safe place to be,” Westmoreland said. “That they have a roof over their head, that they have food — that is what we are concerned about.”
Westmoreland has been in Harrisonburg from Washington, D.C., for the last few days interviewing past and present employees, shelter residents and other people in the community about the allegations. And he said he is eager to speak with anyone who has had experiences with the shelter to tell their side of the story.
Westmoreland said he expected the investigation might take two weeks or more to complete.
Last week, The Citizen reported allegations from current and former staff about understaffing, mold and other maintenance issues, and a lack of support from leadership leading to potentially dangerous conditions for staff and residents.
Several former shelter staff members expressed frustrations with Capts. Harold and Eunice Gitau, who oversee the Salvation Army’s local shelter, church and food pantry. The Gitaus have, so far, declined interview requests.
“We will address leadership issues as well, and we are looking into all of that,” Westmoreland said. “No one is off the table in what we are trying to look into.”
Heather Austin, one of the former shelter employees who said she tried to alert officials about the shelter and who spoke to the media after leaving the shelter, said she is happy there is an investigation and hopes that the homeless population will be better served by the Salvation Army in the future.
“I think the only way forward is for the Gitaus to be removed,” Austin said. “I think District Headquarters needs to come out and make a very strong statement, stating that mistakes were made, they apologize to the community, and they pledge transparency and accountability.”
Moving people from the shelter
Twenty residents stayed at the shelter last Friday. The organization has moved seven residents to a hotel for the foreseeable future while officials do a “top-to-bottom review of all shelter activities,” Westmoreland said.
“I want to go on record and say that we believe that our shelter is safe —that in terms of property and all of those things, there was nothing that created an unsafe environment in terms of property for those clients,” he said.
Although Westmoreland said initial reports concluded that the shelter was safe for use, some parts remain unusable, and they are assessing whether those closed areas impact the whole facility.
Salvation Army officials are looking into claims of building disrepair and working with the Salvation Army property department to parse out any possible neglect or missed inspections, maintenance issues and current renovations to the building.
“If even a fraction of what Heather Austin is saying —and these folks… that are saying these things as well — if any of that is even partially true, that’s not how we run things,” Westmoreland said. “That’s not how we approve of things, and that’s not the kind of shelter that we want to run. And that’s not the kind of love and care and concern that we want to show for a community that’s very deserving of our love, care and concern.”
Austin said she hopes the shelter will reopen, and both her and others say the primary reason they came forward was to make sure that residents were safe and were cared for.
The investigation’s scope
Westmoreland said while finding out what happened with the shelter’s past is important, his is most focused on fixing the issues and moving forward.
“It’s more important to me where we are now and where we are headed,” Westmoreland said. “What we are going to do about any issues we find as we go forward.”
The Salvation Army officials are not only looking into the allegations made about poor management of the shelter, but “all operations” surrounding the Salvation Army in Harrisonburg.
Karen Yoho, divisional communications director of the Salvation Army Potomac Division, said the organization’s advisory board fully supports the investigation into the allegations.
“The Board is very supportive that the investigation will be thorough and conducted to the best of our ability,” Yoho said, adding the board members “are very supportive of the temporary closure.”
The Advisory Board met Tuesday and offered support to the investigative team.
After WMRA, The Citizen and The Daily News Record reported the allegations, Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed issued a statement at the city council meeting Tuesday.
Reed said the city, which has directed grants to the Salvation Army over the last decade, has been in communication with Salvation Army officials about the concerns but that the city, at this point, doesn’t have a role in any investigation.
Westmoreland has asked that his team be given the “breathing room and the space” to conduct the full investigation, sift through the evidence, deal with the leadership and property issues that there might be to ensure the safety of the residents.
“We serve over 9,000 people in Harrisonburg, through a myriad of programs and services. Sheltering is just one piece of this,” Westmoreland said. “But if we can’t do sheltering right, or we do it in an unsafe way, I would prefer the Army not do sheltering. We want to be part of the solution.”
Westmoreland said that if the Salvation Army was to continue shelter operations in Harrisonburg, they were “going to do things right” and run a shelter that is clean and safe and with dignity.
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