SOUTH KINGSTOWN – The same week the new executive director of the Welcome House of South County was scheduled to begin full-time work, he vacated his position, according to Welcome House staff.
The shelter’s board of directors hired Ken Mayer in May after the departure of longtime Executive Director Linda Barden. He was taking over the duties from Valerie Mitchell-DonFrancesco, interim executive director, on a part-time basis and was supposed to begin work full-time Monday. Mitchell-DonFrancesco confirmed Thursday that Mayer is no longer employed at the shelter.
On Wednesday, residents and former Welcome House employees protested outside of the non-profit homeless shelter, soup kitchen and housing organization, claiming that things have gone awry since Linda Barden was let go in January.
Butch Melchert, former house manager at Welcome House, also resigned and submitted his letter of resignation June 14.
In the letter Melchert wrote, “I am no longer going to be able to work at the Welcome House. I came there in 2010 and Welcome House helped me get my life back together. Welcome House helped me get off drugs and alcohol.”
Melchert continues in this manner, saying that with the help of Welcome House staff he trained to be the house manager.
He then goes on to assert that he no longer feels safe at the Welcome House.
“I feel like I am walking on eggshells and I feel like my recovery is at risk day to day,” he wrote. “Welcome House helped me so much and I see that the clients are not coming first anymore. I feel scared every day. I will miss working here but I will never forget what the Welcome House did for me.”
Valerie Mitchell-DonFrancesco confirmed Mayer’s departure Thursday and said that both he and Melchert are no longer employed at the Welcome House.
Mitchell-DonFrancesco said she and Kim Johnson-Wilson are currently managing the shelter.
Regarding Wednesday’s protests, Mitchell said she had no comment, but added, “I think our residents have freedom of speech they have rights to say what’s on their mind.”
She referred all questions to Ken Burke, chair of the board of directors, adding only one additional comment.
“The Welcome House will go on,” she said. “I’m hopeful that it will be part of the community and our guests will always have a place to stay.”
Burke acknowledged Thursday morning that “there are obviously a lot of changes going on at Welcome House.”
“It’s never an easy thing to do, managing a place like Welcome House,” Burke continued. “It requires an extraordinary commitment and it’s not easy. We serve a very vulnerable population that requires quite a bit of support.”
Burke said the Welcome House is an “integral part” of South County.
“We’ve hired a professional consultant, focusing on homelessness, who’s at the facility now,” he said. “We’re going to take in any of her suggestions and comments to make sure services at the Welcome House benefit the community.”
Burke also invited members of the general public to contact Welcome House through the shelter’s website, www.welcomehouseofsouthcounty.org , to “take a closer look at Welcome House” and make suggestions on how the shelter can best serve its guests.
Despite the abrupt departure of Melchert and Mayer, Burke said it was “premature” to begin a search for a new executive director.
“Our unique focus is the support of guest and services that are provided,” he said. “Step one is that we’ve got boots on the ground and that is the initial focus of the board, to make sure that the program is stabilized. Once we get our arms around what the program needs and what the guests needs and what the staff needs, we’re going to implement that action plan, which is very likely to include a new executive director. We have to make sure we’ve got a stable program that an executive director can come be part of.”
Regarding Wednesday’s protests, Burke echoed Mitchell-DonFrancesco, saying that it was a matter of free speech.
“We’re going to take a well measured assessment of this and just move forward,” Burke said.