Harrisonburg Salvation Army shelter temporarily closed for investigation of alleged mismanagement

Published: Mar. 22, 2022 at 7:29 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - The Salvation Army in Harrisonburg has temporarily closed its Emergency Shelter in Harrisonburg while it conducts a comprehensive review of its operations from top to bottom. This comes after several former employees of the shelter alleged major mismanagement.

WHSV spoke to a number of former employees and a current employee as part of our investigation into the claims. They all shared similar stories of Salvation Army leadership under Captains Harold and Eunice Gitau. They claim the husband and wife neglected the needs of the shelter, its guests, and its employees.

“I wanted to change things,” said Heather Austin a former Salvation Army shelter manager. ”I wanted to help people and I couldn’t do it from the inside. So, I’m hoping that we can do it from the outside because that’s all that matters.”

Austin was the manager of the shelter from July to the end of January. She said there were a number of problems with how the Harrisonburg leadership handled the shelter.

“It is a lack of oversight and it is a lack of accountability. It appears as though the captains, whoever happens to be posted there, there just is no oversight and accountability and they’re free to do whatever,” she said.

There are a number of alleged issues at the Salvation Army shelter many of which are linked to understaffing. Among the main issues of concern is safety.

“We’ve had dangerous people in there. Absolutely, absolutely we’ve had dangerous people in there,” said Martha Barber, a former shelter monitor. “But did anybody across the street (at the Salvation Army offices) ever seem to care or be concerned? Did anybody ever say ‘Martha, are you ok? Or Heather are you ok?’ Nope.’”

Barber worked at the shelter for 14 years before resigning in the fall.

“When you’re across the street at that shelter you’re on your own. You’re not gonna get support or concern from anybody,” she said.

A current employee of the shelter, who wished to remain anonymous, said new monitors at the shelter are undertrained and do not know the proper intake policy.

They say this led to a registered sex offender being let into the building for three days, as well as a man carrying large knives, and multiple people who were clearly drunk. They added the police have been called to the shelter about twice a week on average over the last month.

WHSV spoke to Captain Harold Gitau about the allegations. He said he could not comment on any situations involving current or former employees but did say the Salvation Army is taking steps to address understaffing at the shelter.

“As we temporarily suspend the activities, one of the things is to review the whole thing. Hire qualified staff, train them and be able to have a full house of monitors,” Gitau said.

Several of the former employees who spoke with WHSV said understaffing has also led to monitors often having to work multiple double shifts in a week. Sometimes they are forced to work up to 16 hours at a time with no relief from the captains.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever worked 16 hours straight, but it is rough. I did it multiple times,” said Jeff Keane, a former shelter monitor who left the shelter last March. “I called Washington every time and told them this has got to stop.”

Captain Gitau said contrary to the allegations, he has come in to cover shifts at the shelter and that the scheduling of employees is handled by the shelter staff.

“I have been called into the shelter at midnight and I’ve come into work. We’ve hired competent shelter managers to be able to run, schedule, and manage the shelter,” he said. “We believe in our staff in giving them the autonomy to be able to make and cover the schedule.”

A former employee who wished to remain anonymous also claims the Gitaus refused to fire an employee who was arrested for a DUI. They say the Giatus refused to tell district headquarters because they didn’t want to lose an employee at a time when they were so understaffed.

Captain Harold Giatu said he couldn’t comment on that allegation because he isn’t at liberty to discuss matters related to current or former employees.

Former employees say one of the biggest problems is that the Gitaus were very difficult to get in touch with.

“I can not tell you how many times that man was called with important stuff and he would not answer that phone,” said Martha Barber.

Barber’s concerns were echoed by others.

“They never really answered any emails, nor did they answer phone calls or text messages that were sent to them,” said Elizabeth Nixon, a former Salvation Army social services worker.

Several people told WHSV that there were multiple instances where the captains couldn’t be reached when a monitor had to leave and the shelter was left unattended.

One such incident happened over a year ago when Jeff Keane said he had a medical emergency related to a kidney problem while monitoring the shelter. Keane said he had to drive himself to the hospital and couldn’t reach the captains despite making multiple calls.

“Six o’clock I left. I wrote in the logbook that I had left. I had left him a message that I had left. He didn’t even call until two o’clock the next afternoon. And the only reason he called was to see if I was going to be able to work that evening. He wasn’t checking on my condition. He didn’t care,” said Keane.

Captain Harold Gitau denies the allegations that he and his wife were often unavailable.

“We are reachable. We are always here in the office. We are available we’ve always been available. We continue practicing an open door policy,” he said.

The former employees, as well as the anonymous current employee, said Salvation Army funds are being used to put the guests of the shelter in motels some evenings. They believe it’s so the captains do not have to cover shifts at the shelter.

“This is outrageous,” said Barber. “Where are you getting the money for this? When you’re so damn lazy you won’t come in there and take care of this. You’re gonna put them in a motel and spend all this money when you’ve got a perfectly good building sitting there.”

The shelter’s guests are currently staying at a motel while the investigation is conducted.

WHSV spoke with Major Bobby Westmoreland, the general secretary at The Salvation Army Potomac Division, who was in Harrisonburg to oversee the investigation.

He said that Salvation Army Division Headquarters approved the use of funding to put guests in motels and they are fine with it because it is not the duty of Salvation Army officers to run the shelter.

Former employees highlighted a number of other issues within the shelter. One former staffer shared photos of black mold in the kitchen and downstairs bathroom.

Heather Austin said a few weeks after she resigned, several guests of the shelter reached out to her saying there had been no hot water in the women’s dorm for over two weeks.

“When the women spoke to Captain Harold wondering when would this be fixed and what were they supposed to do, he told them that it was not a top priority for him and that they should just be grateful to have a roof over their heads,” said Austin.

Captain Harold said in that particular instance, the delay was related to a contracting issue, not because it wasn’t a priority for him.

“The contractor couldn’t get it patched. So there was a temporary measure for that and at the same time because of the staffing issues we were able to put them in a hotel until we got stabilized with the staffing issues that were going on,” he said.

Captain Harold also said that under his watch there have been more than $200,000 worth of renovations made to the shelter along Jefferson Street.

Austin and other former employees also allege the shelter often didn’t get the supplies it needed in a timely manner.

“I submitted several requests for supplies in emails, documented that we were low on certain things, we were out, I’m going to have to go buy things. Things like toilet paper and face masks. We went without supplies for 13 days before I ever got a response from Captain Eunice,” said Austin.

Other shelter monitors said they experienced similar issues before Austin’s arrival.

“I can’t tell you how many times we ran out of toilet paper, detergent. The residents would come down to the office and say, ‘Hey, we’re out of such and such and I’d say ‘Well, I’ll put it on the supply list and it’ll be here in a month,’” said Keane.

Captain Harold denied these allegations and said there is a protocol in place for the shelter’s employees to request and receive the supplies they need.

“Once they put up their list immediately whatever is available is provided to them and a purchase is made,” he said. “The process is every first and 15th we process the orders. So that gives time for the order to be made. But we’ve never run out of supplies, the shelter is right across the street and employees can come across to pick what is needed immediately.”

Former employees also said the shelter does not provide the necessary resources and social services to help people get out of homelessness.

“So many times, I had to wonder, ‘Why do you even have a shelter? Why are we even here?’ Because you’re not helping anybody. You’re putting a roof over your head and you’re feeding them but you’re not helping them get their lives straightened out,” said Barber.

Barber said there were a few people over the years that she felt the shelter was truly able to help but they didn’t receive the resources needed to make a larger impact.

“No one was willing to hear our requests or what this person needed or ‘Can we do this to help this person?’ and it’s always the same answer. ‘No, we don’t really get into that’ or ‘No, we don’t have the money for that.’ It was always the same thing,” she said.

Elizabeth Nixon handled the food pantry, energy share program, and COVID programs during her year with the Salvation Army of Harrisonburg. She said a lot of the social service referral duties were thrown on her in her time there but she didn’t have the skills or training necessary to handle those duties.

“It was really hard for me because I felt really bad but I don’t have the training and I didn’t want to provide assistance that I don’t have the skills to provide,” she said.

Nixon said she was often handling tasks she wasn’t qualified to do with little to no guidance.

In a final response to all of the allegations made against him and his wife, Captain Harold Gitau thanked all of the volunteers and staff that make the Salvation Army’s work possible and said despite the allegations, he plans to continue to work to ensure the safety of shelter guests and staff.

“The bottom line is our priority is to care for our community, staff, and residents. Their safety and care. That’s the key thing that we’re doing and will continue doing in this community,” Gitau said.

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