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Salvation Army leaders accused of mismanagement of Harrisonburg shelter

Randi B. Hagi

Former employees of the Salvation Army in Harrisonburg allege that mismanagement has created an unsafe environment for guests and staff at the shelter it runs. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Two former employees and two other anonymous sources familiar with the current situation at The Salvation Army Emergency Shelter contacted WMRA with numerous concerns. They say the problems range from negligence that contributed to guests having medical emergencies, to staff being asked to work 24 hours straight.

Heather Austin was the program manager there for six months. She resigned at the end of January.

HEATHER AUSTIN: It is not a safe environment. The leadership, the people who are in charge are just negligent.

Everyone who spoke with WMRA described an organization plagued with issues stemming from a lack of care for shelter guests and staff from the top – Captains Harold and Eunice Gitau – who oversee the shelter, food pantry, and church in Harrisonburg. They arrived here in the summer of 2020. Salvation Army captains are reassigned to new locations every few years.

Both Austin and Dena Hunt, a shelter monitor who worked there for three months, said the captains almost never set foot in the shelter, which on average hosts around 20 residents at a time, although that number varies.

DENA HUNT: I had never had any kind of conversation with the captains. I had never seen them come to the shelter … I'd never seen them interact with the people, anything.

There was also a stark lack of communication – Austin sent screenshots to WMRA showing stretches where the captains did not respond to her texts for days at a time. This could especially be a problem when the shelter would run out of supplies such as toilet paper or face masks. Eunice Gitau was the only person authorized to do the shopping, according to Austin.

Both Austin and Hunt also had concerns about how staff were trained and supervised. On two different occasions, Austin said a person who was visibly intoxicated and another who was carrying multiple knives were let in, which is against shelter policies.

The last straw for both of them came the night of Sunday, January 30th. Austin had given her two weeks notice, and Hunt was hanging in there after working several 16-hour shifts that week. They were already short-staffed, which Austin had spoken to the captains about.

AUSTIN: I'd already informed them like three days previously that there was no staff coverage for an overnight shift, and of course there was no response.

HUNT: They didn't have anyone on the schedule to come in at 12, so she had contacted the captains, and they had called the shelter and asked me, could I work another shift? And I said that's 24 hours straight! I can't.

AUSTIN: And within the space of an hour, I was called by Captain Harold and hung up on three out of four times because I told him that I was not willing to go in and work that overnight shift.

Then, Hunt says the captain called back and told her to get all the guests together in the dining room and ready to go to a motel for the night. Hunt, Austin, and the anonymous sources who spoke with WMRA all found this incident particularly disturbing – because the captains refused to cover the overnight shift themselves. Austin, Hunt and the others feel that’s emblematic of their disdain for the shelter guests. And they also noted that kind of abrupt change caused distress for the guests, many of whom have a background of trauma and mental health issues.

AUSTIN: They are seeking stability and security and safety, and that night, there, there were people who cried.

They both resigned after that night, and Austin said two other employees left around the same time – leaving just two monitors in the shelter. Anonymous sources confirmed in early March that there were only two monitors on staff, which has made for a rapidly devolving situation – including reports that one person staying there beat up another guest so badly he had to be taken to the hospital.

According to records from the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Emergency Communications Center, in the past six months, the shelter had an average of just over two visits or patrols per week from law enforcement, the fire department, or EMS units, and less than one visit per week involving a physical or mental health issue, altercation, or threat.

The week after Austin and Hunt left The Salvation Army, there were seven total visits and three issue-related calls.

Multiple anonymous sources have told WMRA that in the past six or seven weeks, the shelter has stopped accepting new intakes; the women's dormitory went multiple weeks without hot water, and they were told by Harold Gitau that fixing it was not a priority; and residents have been taken to stay in a hotel at least three times, because the captains, [quote] "refuse to work a single night."

I called and left two messages for the captains.

In response, I got a text from Karen Yoho, communications director for The Salvation Army's Potomac division, which read, [quote] "We are not available to speak regarding this internal matter that is related to a former employee … While it is not appropriate to address those with the former employee, the matter was investigated and handled appropriately."

I wrote back and asked if Yoho could at least confirm that the shelter guests have had to stay in hotel rooms lately – and did not hear back

The shelter’s operations are partially funded by taxpayer dollars. According to Harrisonburg city budgets, the shelter has received $25,000 from the city each fiscal year since 2013, except for fiscal year 2014 when it got $75,000.

The city's director of communications, Michael Parks, did not mention The Salvation Army specifically but said in an email that it's common for them to be contacted by people with concerns about agencies in town, but they're limited in what they have authority to inspect – like violations of city or state codes.

Ultimately, Austin and Hunt said they just want the shelter to be a safe and kind place for the vulnerable people who need to stay there.

HUNT: The wellbeing of the residents there, I just want them to be not forgotten or neglected.