Clients say bullying is a problem at Brother Francis Shelter, agency is following up

Clients of the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage are agitating for change. They are frustrated with the way they are being treated at the shelter and with some of the policies. Catholic Social Services, which runs the shelter, is trying to work with them to improve the situation.

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Mats laid out at the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage. Photo  from CSS video.
Mats laid out at the Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage. Photo from CSS video.

Celia Harrison started staying at Brother Francis back in March, when she felt like she could no longer safely stay in her housing in Soldotna. Since then, the former nurse has been writing about her experiences extensively on Facebook. Her posts include positive things, like small kindnesses, and detailed stories of staff being loud in the middle of the night or her belongings being soaked by flooding in the shower room.

“For a very long period of time, I would write at least one incident report every day about things that went on,” she said. “Things that the staff were doing and other problems.”

Harrison says her complaints made a difference: people are no longer allowed to bring food into the sleeping areas and mats are laid out to give people more space. But Harrison says one thing has not improved. She says some staff members at the Brother Francis Shelter bully the clients.

“I’ve even witnessed them setting people up to get a reaction so that they can use that reaction to throw people out. And it’s not all of the staff. It’s the bullies.”

Harrison lists incidents of individuals being accused of drinking when they haven’t and others being given special privileges. She is not alone in her concerns. Mari Burt and a half a dozen other individuals who use the facility started discussing the problems weeks ago. Burt says they tried to contact Catholic Social Services staff and received some follow up, but not enough.

CSS Executive Director Lisa Aquino says the organization takes every complaint seriously. They log them and try to respond to them as best they can.

“We never want our clients to feel bullied, period,” she states. “When we have heard complaints about bullying or about questioning actions that our staff take, we always follow up on that. We always address that if it’s with a specific staff person, our management addresses that with them. And we also talk about the larger issues as a group and as a staff.”

Aquino says in the past they have terminated staff members if they are not a good fit for the program. But the director says the staff is working with a very diverse population with different mental and physical health needs. In the shelter, they have to find a balance of respect and safety for the 240 people who sleep there every night.

“We face the challenge of trying to support all of our guests at the Brother Francis Shelter and treat them with dignity and respect, and to provide them with the individual care that they need as a person while at the same time thinking of the overall health and well-being of all of the clients at the shelter.”

To help do that, they train staff about the culture of poverty, mental health issues, trauma informed care, and de-escalating conflicts. But Aquino says with fiscal, legal, and social constraints, they can’t monitor all areas at all times.

Mari Burt says she has sent Aquino an email on Wednesday requesting a community dialogue at the shelter about the guests’s experiences with bullying. If it does not happen, they’ll hold a public protest. Burt and Harrison have already contact the mayor’s office.