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Temp workers at Las Vegas’ courtyard for homeless terminated

The Courtyard Homeless Resource Center in Las Vegas is intended to help restore stability to the lives of the unsheltered. But that commitment doesn’t necessarily extend to the temporary staffers hired to work there.

Thirteen employees out of a total of about 30 working at the 24/7 shelter and resource center for the homeless have been terminated and replaced since January, when a social worker who hired them and had effectively been managing day-to-day operations resigned because he feared that he was about to be fired.

According to city records, seven of those employees were terminated last month, three of them on the same day.

“We were the face of the courtyard,” said Kendra Strong, 47, one of the laid-off workers. “I mattered to (the homeless clients) as much as they mattered to me. Now what are are they going to think? That people come and go out of their lives?”

It’s the second big upheaval in staffing at the courtyard, which provides an open-air area on Foremaster Lane and Las Vegas Boulevard North where the homeless can sleep in a secure environment and access a range of services. It serves about 250 homeless people a night at the courtyard.

In November, the city terminated the nonprofit it had hired just four months earlier and paid $48,500 to abruptly end its contract.

Since then, the city has taken on oversight of the operation with a four-member homeless services team made up of city employees, including a social worker. As it ponders how to manage future operations, it is relying mainly on workers supplied by a temporary agency to carry out day-to-day duties.

No reasons given

The terminated temps say they were given no reason for their dismissals from the courtyard, which has been operating 24/7 for 10 months now. But many say they believe they were let go because they were hired by Kevin Whalen, the social worker who ran the courtyard from November until he resigned in January.

Kathi Thomas-Gibson, the city’s director of community services, called that notion “interesting” but said there was “no relationship between the two.”

She said there were different reasons for the terminations but could not discuss any individual employees.

“It’s important that they understand the nature of the population they serve. They have to meet the standard of the level of quality of service expected,” she said. “If they can’t meet the standard, they can’t stay on the team.”

She also said the temporary workers were hired to give managers flexibility as the courtyard concept matures.

“They are just that; they are temporary,” she said. “They fulfill an operational need, and if that position is no longer needed, they’re terminated.”

That explanation doesn’t satisfy some of the terminated employees.

Mary Felix, 36, a case manager, was responsible for helping clients find jobs, either temporary or permanent, and succeeded in placing as many as 34 a month during her time at the courtyard, according to city records and documents she provided to the Review-Journal.

But she said she was escorted off the property in March after Jocelyn Bluitt-Fisher, the city’s community services administrator who oversees courtyard operations, criticized her performance.

Bluitt-Fisher declined to comment for this story.

Ryan-Katie Pocino, a navigator at the courtyard, said she was fired after sending her supervisors an email expressing concerns about a security guard at the courtyard who conducted only cursory checks of clients’ belongings when they checked in and berated others as drug addicts.

Some former employees, including Whalen, say the temps also were told when they were hired that there was a chance for permanent employment with the city or another nonprofit once a $15 million project to build new facilities at the courtyard begins in August.

Even after Whalen left, the workers said, Thomas-Gibson had assured them their jobs were safe.

Thomas-Gibson said she held an all-team meeting with the workers after Whalen resigned but indicated that they had apparently misunderstood her response to a question about whether the “city was running of money” to fund the courtyard.

“I said, ‘If you’re let go, it’s related to your performance on the job,’” she said. “That is not the same as saying, ‘Everybody in this room will transition to a full-time city employee.’”

But Whalen maintains that performance had nothing to do with the terminations, saying the team he assembled was doing a great job “opening up some different venues for clients that they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to.”

“(The city) did flip the script and got rid of almost my entire staff in a short period of time. They fired a lot of people for no good reason,” Whalen said. “The job didn’t cease and the services didn’t cease, so there should be no reason that those people lost their jobs.”

Whalen said he was told his job was in jeopardy after he continued to remind his supervisors that at least two landlords who housed courtyard clients had not been paid for more than three months.

‘I was their scapegoat’

Whalen, who previously managed a housing program at the Salvation Army, said he had used his connections to secure relationships between the landlords and the city and felt responsible to try to solve the issue. But that effort backfired, he said.

“I was their scapegoat. When they looked like amateurs, they just disregarded the truth,” Whalen said.

Jace Radke, a spokesman for the city of Las Vegas, acknowledged that some rent payments were late but denied that the city bore any responsibility for the arrears.

“The folks that are responsible for that were working at the courtyard and no longer work there,” he said.

On a recent Friday, four former courtyard employees returned to Foremaster Lane for the first time since they were terminated.

Many of the homeless there recognized them immediately.

One homeless man who gave only his first name, Billy, stopped in his tracks when he saw the former staffers.

“I heard you got fired for helping people,” he told the group. “I was wondering about you.”

Another man, who asked to be identified by his nickname, “Juju,” recognized Felix and came up to give her a hug.

“Hello, Miss Mary,” he said. “What are you doing here? They fired everybody? You, too?”

Juju said Felix, who had been his case worker, had placed him in a variety of jobs, including at events like NASCAR races.

Even though she was no longer on the job, Felix had another gig lined up for him: working at the upcoming Electric Daisy Carnival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Standing on the side of the road, she helped connect him to the recruiter.

Some security guards outside the shelter entrance watched the former employees warily, but others greeted their former colleagues.

Then, an employee at the courtyard shouted at them: “Burger King is hiring!”

The group ignored the taunt and began walking back to their cars.

There is another place that’s hiring, according to Radke, the city spokesman.

“The city is actively hiring for the Courtyard, and is looking for caring, responsible individuals who want to be part of helping those in need break the cycle of homelessness,” he said in a recent email.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @brianarerick on Twitter.

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