Workers raise concerns of toxic workplace at Vancouver homeless services provider Share

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
June 16, 2022 12 p.m. Updated: June 16, 2022 11:47 p.m.

Share is the largest provider of homeless services in Southwest Washington. Current and former workers allege being ignored about dangerous work environments and improper firings.

Brandie Dieterle’s husband was in jail. While she tried to scrounge bail and juggle raising four kids, she thought at least she had a stable job.

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That changed quickly. Dieterle, a case manager at the Vancouver homeless services provider Share, received a message in September from the organization’s executive director.

Brandie Dieterle works from her apartment in June 2022. Dieterle is among serveral current and former workers at the Vancouver nonprofit Share to raise concerns about the workplace.

Brandie Dieterle works from her apartment in June 2022. Dieterle is among serveral current and former workers at the Vancouver nonprofit Share to raise concerns about the workplace.

Troy Brynelson / OPB

“I instantly knew this was going to be a problem,” said Dieterle, 41. She had struggled internally at work, but hadn’t neglected her duties.

Within hours of getting that message, she lost her job. The executive director, Diane McWithey, had called a meeting. McWithey fired her and repeatedly said she needed to be home “taking care of her family,” Dieterle recalled.

A one-page termination letter gave no cause for the firing, leaving boxes unchecked for misdeeds like insubordination, absenteeism, theft or misconduct. A note read only “Not a good fit at this time to meet needs of clients.”

The firing was not unusual, according to several current and former staff. For many, constant tension exists between the nonprofit’s administrators and those who work closest with the region’s homeless community.

Share is the largest homeless services provider in Southwest Washington. It is a steward for millions of public dollars every year to help people get off the streets and into permanent housing.

OPB spoke with 16 past and current workers about their work experience. While just about all championed Share as an institution and many of its programs, many lamented that missteps with administrators could cost someone their livelihood and put themselves near homelessness.

“My husband’s in jail. I am already low-income even working here. I have four kids. How is this trauma informed?” Dieterle said of her firing.

Many of the workers declined to lend their names out of fear of retaliation. Even ex-employees told OPB they worried about hurting their careers in the close-knit world of homeless services.

“Everyone felt the same way about Share and the higher-ups,” said a former employee OPB is calling Paige, who still works in Vancouver. “We just didn’t feel like there was any compassion. We’d advocate for ourselves and get nothing.”

A person sleeps outside a tent at one of the most populated homeless camps near the Share shelter in downtown Vancouver. The city is preparing to establish its own supported campsites this year.

A person sleeps outside a tent at one of the most populated homeless camps near the Share shelter in downtown Vancouver. The city is preparing to establish its own supported campsites this year.

Troy Brynelson / OPB

Firings

In November 2020, Paige had earned a promotion. She felt relief about landing work away from Share’s shelters, where clients sometimes made her fearful.

Paige was pregnant, a fact she had disclosed to her direct supervisor. A month into her new role, she started discussing her upcoming maternity leave. Then, she said, McWithey called.

“I remember I got a call at like 8 or 9 in the morning,” Paige said. “She was quietly asking me if I was pregnant. … And then she said I never would have gotten that position if she knew I was pregnant.”

The issue, according to Paige, centered on her new position being grant funded and the organization being unable to accommodate her extended leave.

“When I came back, I could look at what (jobs at Share were) open and apply for them,” Paige said McWithey told her. “I had just spent almost over a year working my way up and putting those hours in for it just to be taken away, discredited, and then have to go back into an entry-level position.”

In Clark County, the average social worker makes $19.73 an hour – about $41,000 annually before taxes.

Share administrators reshuffled Paige into a lower job before her leave, according to emails provided to OPB. Although she kept a pay increase, she felt professionally whiplashed. After she went into labor three weeks later, she never returned.

When asked about Paige’s departure, McWithey denied that the pregnancy was a factor. She said Paige had asked for five months off — an unworkable amount of time if the position was going to carry out the goals laid out in its grant.

“I told her that I could not hold her position open for five months and meet the requirements of the grant,” McWithey said.

Paige maintained that when Share demoted her in January, she had only asked for a standard 12-week leave. It wasn’t until two weeks later that her doctor said she needed to be induced due to sudden complications with her pregnancy, and that she should take an extra two months to recover.

“At that point, I was only asking for 12 weeks off,” Paige said. “Period.”

McWithey, in an interview, contended Share didn’t lose employees any more than any other employer. She declined to talk in detail about most employees’ firings, but broadly resisted the idea that they created difficult working conditions. She acknowledged hearing that former employees felt spurned.

“We do not have high turnover. It’s just that we have people that are not happy (when they) do leave,” McWithey said.

Only once has Share been the subject of an official workplace complaint, McWithey noted. After an investigation, the Washington Labor & Industries sided with the nonprofit, she said.

Vancouver's Navigation Center is pictured Tuesday, March 10, 2020, in Vancouver, Wash.

Share is a big player in Southwest Washington’s homelessness response. Since 2017, it’s signed more than $60 million worth of contracts with Clark County, some of which continue into 2026. It famously ran — and ultimately resigned from — Vancouver’s ill-fated navigation center show here in this Tuesday, March 10, 2020 file photo.

Troy Brynelson / OPB

Growing pains?

Before rising to executive director, McWithey started at Share as an office manager in 1989. Back then, the organization had a roster of three part-time workers and one shelter for 18 people. It hosted free lunches.

Today, it employs about 150 people, runs four shelters and helps operate multiple apartment buildings that house people coming right off the streets. On any given month, it’s keeping a roof over 250 and 300 households.

Share is a big player in Southwest Washington’s homelessness response. Since 2017, it’s signed more than $60 million worth of contracts with Clark County, some of which continue into 2026. It famously ran — and ultimately resigned from — Vancouver’s ill-fated navigation center.

McWithey and Adam Roselli, president of the organization’s board, described Share as though it were experiencing growing pains.

The organization’s revenue jumped roughly 40% — to $13.7 million — in 2020, according to public filings. About $3.5 million came from funds to aid in the pandemic.

“We just got huge, right? We exploded,” said Roselli, a commercial real estate broker by trade. “The pandemic created a huge demand for hunger (and) homelessness services within our community, and Share was able to step up and grow to answer the need.”

Share hired 43 new positions last year. Nineteen people departed, including Dieterle, who was fired, and Paige, who said she doesn’t even know how her departure is classified.

Related: Vancouver Seeks To Create Needed Homeless Shelter Beds After Bumpy Start

“I emailed and asked if I was terminated and (McWithey) just jumped around the question,” Paige said. “It was more like, ‘We’re not approving your leave.’ It didn’t say I was terminated. Honestly, I don’t know.”

In February 2021, Eboni Samuels was facing a breast cancer diagnosis. After her biopsy, Samuels called her supervisor at Share and warned them about potentially needing to take medical leave.

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McWithy called for a meeting the next day, Samuels said. McWithey told Samuels only that she had “crossed a boundary” and a colleague had complained.

“I went to work with integrity and transparency every day,” Samuels said in a May interview, wearing a hat to cover her shortened hair after chemotherapy. “To have someone just take that away from you and not care?”

The single mom landed on welfare and food stamps. She lived in downtown Portland and wondered if she would have to seek aid at the River District Navigation Center where, at a previous job, she once helped clients.

“There would be plenty of days where I would just sit and think, ‘It’s going to be really embarrassing if I have to walk in there,’” Samuels said through tears. “Luckily, I was able to get connected with an organization that was able to help me pay my mortgage.”

She acknowledged having a tense relationship with one colleague. Still, Samuels said, she was never interviewed for an investigation.

Eboni Samuels stands outside her office in Washington County in June 2022. Samuels is among several current and former workers at the Vancouver nonprofit Share to raise concerns about the workplace.

Eboni Samuels stands outside her office in Washington County in June 2022. Samuels is among several current and former workers at the Vancouver nonprofit Share to raise concerns about the workplace.

Troy Brynelson / OPB

Four months prior, she had gotten a promotion, Samuels said. Before her firing, she said she hadn’t received any warnings — verbal or written — that indicated her job performance was a problem. Multiple fired employees whom OPB interviewed said the same.

After receiving an email from OPB laying out ex-employees’ complaints, McWithey declined to comment on Samuels’ assertions.

Grievances

Current and past employees frequently vented about Share lacking a process to handle grievances.

“There was no documentation aside from, like, the employee handbook,” said a former supervisor who quit in 2021. OPB agreed to quote the manager anonymously as she still works in Clark County. “You’re literally just dumped in the middle of it, and hopefully you sort it out.”

That should be a concern to everyone given the amount of public dollars Share handles, she added.

“There are serious issues happening in this agency that continues to get tons and tons of money to operate,” she said.

Four years ago, Share tapped Lake Oswego-based human resources consultant MacKenzie+. Share paid $185 an hour for the firm’s help with duties like conducting exit interviews.

Multiple fired or resigned employees interviewed for this article said they never once heard from the consultant. Lisa MacKenzie, the firm’s managing director, said the firm interviews about six out of every 10 departing employees.

At one point, MacKenzie recommended Share create a dedicated HR staffer. Amid last year’s growth spurt, Share hired its first: an office manager, who had no prior experience in human resources. McWithey said the coordinator is working to become “a certified HR professional” and said the organization believes strongly in promoting from within.

Other changes implemented last year include an anonymized portal for employees to give feedback. McWithey estimated 65% to 70% of comments were positive. Share also contracted counselors to help staff with burnout and fatigue.

Burnout and stress are rife in the field. An April 2021 survey from the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that 37% of shelters reported staffing shortages due to increased stress, exhaustion and diminishing morale.

Some employees, however, are opening up about their frustrations. Several launched a private Facebook group last October called “Share Vancouver, WA Problems” which has grown to more than 50 members.

A current case manager told OPB that she loves her job at one of the housing projects, but said they are isolated from administrators like McWithey who work in another building. She described it like an ivory tower.

“I think if she came here… she’d kick out a lot of the people we have who have a lot of visible symptoms of mental illness,” the case manager said.

In another incident, shelter staffer Alyssa Hundersmarck blasted the organization straight to the board of directors. She complained of low pay and dangerous working conditions at Share’s main shelter for men.

Hundersmarck emailed the board that she was often the only staffer on-site with more than 50 men and a broken security latch on the site that had gone unfixed. She also said she caught COVID in December 2020 during an outbreak at the shelter.

She wrote she had “received support from many community members, Share stakeholders and former staff with complaints similar to mine which has been helpful when I feel I am being ignored and gaslighted by administration.”

Hundersmarck told OPB she was not surprised to be fired days after sending the email.

“I had something in me, man. Like, ‘fuck it. I don’t even care. I’m so sick of this bullshit,’” Hundersmarck said.

McWithey did not comment on Hundersmarck’s claims.

Looking forward

Jilted or not, current and former workers gave near unanimous praise for Share’s mission and its frontline staff, who work closest with the region’s most vulnerable populace.

An ex-case manager, who wanted to only be identified as Rebekah, described her tenure as a “positive experience.” Then she added: “As long as any involvement with (administrators) was minimal.”

The recent growth spurt demonstrated the nonprofit’s impacts in Southwest Washington, said a former accountant who declined to be named. The accountant said McWithey knows the organization inside and out, even if she struggles with managing personalities.

“The main problem with Share is Diane, but she’s also one of the main reasons they’re as successful as they are and help as many people as they can help,” the accountant said.

Samuels, the staffer fired shortly after her cancer diagnosis, recently landed a job at a nonprofit working with unhoused people in Washington County. Looking back on Share, she said she “still thinks it’s a great organization.”

“It’s doing great work for houseless people, but it just taught me that everyone that’s in a position of power does not use that power righteously,” Samuels said.

Dieterle, the case manager, similarly praised the organization while criticizing leadership.

“The work they’re doing is amazing,” Dieterle said. “They’re employing people that would not be employable. Amazing people work there at all levels – until the rotten top.”

Like Samuels and Hundersmarck, McWithey declined to comment on Dieterle’s claims.

Dieterle eventually bailed her husband out of jail. She collected a $435-per-week unemployment check. Eventually, she found work at a Portland nonprofit.

In April, however, she suffered another setback. Share challenged her unemployment claim, telling the Oregon Employment Department that it fired Dieterle for violating policies.

“I was shocked,” Dieterle said. “Because of the audacity of it.”

Dieterle, possessing the termination letter with no stated cause, appealed. The appeal is currently underway. If she fails, she faces paying back $6,734.

Today, she and her husband can barely pay rent, she said. The state would have to garnish her wages. But Dieterle said she’s confident about her chances against Share’s administration.

“Prove it. Show the paperwork,” Dieterle said. “Because it doesn’t exist. If they have documents, I must have been able to see it and sign it. And that didn’t happen.”

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