A winter warming center employee accused of abusive behavior towards homeless people utilizing the overnight shelter no longer works there, a Salvation Army official confirmed Wednesday.
Salvation Army Captain Jeff Eddy said the employee in question was no longer affiliated with the shelter, which is funded by the city and operated by the Salvation Army. The person’s last day at work was Monday. The nature of the departure was not disclosed.
The allegations against the former employee, who is currently employed by the city’s Office of Community Relations, were first made in a Jan. 24 letter sent to Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder and Salvation Army officials by Springfield resident Joe O’Neill.
O’Neill, an advocate for the city’s homeless, went to the shelter after hearing complaints from homeless people he knows. In the 45 minutes he spent in the shelter, O’Neill said he found the employee “threatening” and “intimidating” in demeanor. He said the employee made demeaning statements and was “cussing, scolding and lecturing” clients. He said they and their belongings were treated with no respect.
O’Neill later made a video of homeless people detailing their experiences at the shelter, asking them what’s good about it and what’s bad about it. Many said they liked that it was warm, but each described problems with the way staff treats clients.
“There’s no love, there’s no passion, there’s no empathy,” O’Neill said, speaking before the Springfield City Council Tuesday night. “This isn’t to destroy somebody’s reputation, I’m not going there. I don’t know (him), I don’t know those people that are there, all I know is what happened.”
On the city side, Langfelder said he turned over O’Neill’s letter and video along with another letter to Inspector General Roger Holmes that outlined the employee’s alleged abusive behavior.
“We have received complaints in previous years,” Langfelder said. “And so we’ve always allowed the entity that oversees the winter warming center to take care of it. Previously, evidently, it was taken care of. This year, it seems like it was reoccurring, and so that’s why we took a deeper look into it.”
Despite first hearing of the allegations late last month, Eddy said the reason the former employee continued to work was “an effort to be fair to everybody involved” while an investigation took place.
But City Council members and homeless advocates blasted the organization and city officials on Tuesday for allowing the employee continued access to the homeless with the allegations outstanding.
“If I as a pastor receive an allegation of abuse by someone in my care, it doesn’t matter if they’re an employee, a volunteer, a contract worker, someone who just showed up that day,” said Susan Phillips, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, addressing Langfelder and council members. “It’s my responsibility to safeguard the well-being of people in my care. And if I don’t remove that person, if I allow them to continue and they abuse further, I’m liable. We are liable.”
The accounts of O’Neill, Phillips and other advocates who have heard similar stories was one of the dominant topics of discussion at Tuesday’s council meeting. They had a sympathetic ear from aldermen.
“I was told by more than one person, multiple people — what happens at the warming center, stays at the warming center,” said Ward 8 Ald. Erin Conley. “This city is not running a fight club. That is not what this center is intended to be.”
Eddy said his organization was “committed to fixing any problems” that have arisen.
“I’m not going to say that we’ve done everything right,” Eddy said. “But I am going to say that everything we’ve found that we’re doing wrong, we’ve taken steps to correct.”
Eddy pointed to installation of cameras in common areas, a comment box where clients can anonymously report issues, the presence of case workers and making sure that Springfield police officers are present during the most chaotic times of the day.
The city had to scramble last October after Helping Hand’s plans to develop a comprehensive center for the homeless at 521 S. 11th St. were scrapped. They were forced to open the center for another season of use while finding community partners to help operate it. Helping Hands had previously informed the city it would not continue to assist with the warming center’s operations, so the city turned to The Salvation Army.
But, some say, the solution was a band-aid to a larger problem.
“We need a Center for Health and Housing,” said Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso. “It’s more than evident. We have to do something. We have to get everyone back at the table, we have to get all the conversations starting again, we have to pick a location … and we’ve got to make this happen. Because otherwise, this is just going to continue.”
Contact Brenden Moore: 788-1526, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/brendenmoore13.