Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a statement from The Kitchen’s board president.
In a letter sent to The Kitchen, Inc.’s board president — and to several members of the media — Friday afternoon, 24 former Kitchen employees make several allegations about how the nonprofit is managed and how employees are treated.
The Kitchen, Inc. is a Springfield-based nonprofit that works to prevent and end homelessness by providing housing and stabilizing services. It was founded in 1983 by Sister Lorraine Biebel and has since grown to be one of the region’s largest social service providers for families, individuals, youth, seniors, and Veterans in need, according to its website.
Ellen Hammock, president of The Kitchen’s board, sent the following statement Monday evening to the Daily Citizen in response to the letter: “The Board of Trustees of the Kitchen Inc. nor the leaders of the organization are able to comment on any previous employee relationships, including those that have not been part of the team for several months or years.”
Hammock added: “TKI [The Kitchen, Inc.] is committed to a community without homelessness. It takes a large team to accomplish this, both employed and volunteer and TKI is blessed and lucky to have such dedicated and caring staff.”
Earlier Monday, the Daily Citizen reached out to The Kitchen with a list of questions, a request for recent financial statements and for a response to the letter. By 4 p.m., The Kitchen had not responded, but Hammock responded Monday evening. The full text of her statement is printed below.
The letter from the former employees reads in part:
“The Kitchen spends many thousands of dollars each year towards housing the homeless population in Springfield. This gives the appearance of ending homelessness but the truth is that a large percentage of these individuals will not remain housed after assistance stops, and many will return to homelessness within the year. Housing numbers give the impression that real progress is being made while, in actuality, the homelessness problem persists. It is this homelessness that provides the reason for the continued existence of the organization.”
The former employees allege that some of The Kitchen’s affordable housing complexes, such as McClernon, Beacon Village and Franciscan Villa, are managed by private companies who rarely accept actual Kitchen clients.
In the letter, the former employees state they were “treated as expendable, and easily replaced.”
“At times managers appear to take a personal dislike to an employee who feels they are being targeted until they are eventually forced to quit or are fired,” the letter reads.
On several occasions, employees tried to contact the board directly about their concerns, the letter said.
“After one such contact, the CEO, held an organization-wide meeting with personnel to inform them of her displeasure that the Board had been contacted. She directed that no employee would contact the Board in the future without speaking with her first.”
According to The Kitchen’s website, Meleah Spencer is the CEO.
In the letter, the former employees point to a 2018 article in the Springfield News-Leader that was written after several staff members at the Rare Breed resigned as being evidence of the issues with employee retention:
“Since that time (2018) there has been a continuous turnover of employees from The Kitchen due to the toxic work environment within the organization. The Kitchen employs about 40 individuals at the O’Reilly Family Campus and throughout their various properties. In one two-year period, The Kitchen lost around 33 employees who either quit or were fired. This statistic shows an abysmal turnover rate of 82% which we feel to be the direct result of poor management,” the letter reads.
“Many of those who quit were good employees that cared deeply about the homeless population they served, but left due to an overtly hostile work environment. Bullying by management appears commonplace,” the letter reads. “One example was when several employees quit this year, believing they were being retaliated against after reporting possible inappropriate behavior by a member of management.”
The former employees ask the board to consider the information in the letter and “determine if there is anything that can be done to remedy the problems for the good of the employees, the company, and the homeless population that The Kitchen purports to serve.”
The letter is signed by the following: David Meyer, Kathy Cobb, Michelle Brown, Patrick Haenni, Mary Tower, Maryann Heaps, Stacey Harshberger, Stefanie Nentrup, Colin Ayre, Casey Crump, Maria Graham, Jesse Packwood, Kendall McDaniel, Brooke McDaniel, Elisa Coonrod, Dallas Brede, John Gauthier, Amy Pederson, Devon Wade, Darrin Yount, Vicki Johanson, Shelley Smith, Austin Green and Courtney Myers.
The Daily Citizen confirmed the letter’s contents with a few of the former employees listed above.
Here is the complete statement to the Daily Citizen from Ellen Hammock, The Kitchen’s board president, who said that as a volunteer board member she was unable to respond by the time the story was originally published:
“The Board of Trustees of the Kitchen Inc. nor the leaders of the organization are able to comment on any previous employee relationships, including those that have not been part of the team for several months or years.
“During the past year The Kitchen Inc. (TKI) has accomplished a great deal in its efforts to bring stability and purpose to people who are homeless. TKI has also spent time and resource in the review of its processes and the development of the staff and volunteer teams. We hold our staff and programs to the highest standards and expect all to adhere to our core values of respect, dignity, quality, service and compassion. In April the Council on Accreditation (COA) conducted a thorough review of TKI and based on their findings, COA’s Accreditation Commission voted that The Kitchen, Inc. had successfully met the criteria for reaccreditation.
“TKI received no out of compliance ratings in any fundamental practice standards. The COA is a voluntary review process for social and human services organizations and involves the submission of information as well as on site visit review which includes interviews with the staff, Board of Trustees, clients and tour of facilities. The review focused on CEO and management performance, financial stability, human resources policies and procedures, programming and board governance. COA evaluated all aspects of The Kitchen’s programs, services, management, and administration.
“This summer TKI underwent a successful strategic planning process with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks that involved TKI staff and Board of Trustees. In late July, TKI broke ground on a new affordable housing development, Maplewood Villas. This will be a 44 unit development which will serve those 55+. Eleven of those units will be set aside to serve homeless veterans and should be completed prior to the end of 2023.
“TKI is committed to a community without homelessness. It takes a large team to accomplish this, both employed and volunteer and TKI is blessed and lucky to have such dedicated and caring staff.”