Ulysses Aiken, a native Annapolitan, found himself homeless after losing his job as a professional boxing trainer. He ended up at the Light House Homeless Prevention and Support Center — Anne Arundel County's only shelter open to adults and children year round.
There for four months earlier this year, Aiken, 54, called his stay "a nightmare" and said he was kicked out of the shelter without cause.
Aiken says he is one of eight former residents who have filed complaints with the county Human Relations Commission in recent weeks, alleging that a senior staff member bullied and harassed residents. Additionally, a former staffer, Sharon Middleton, says she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging a hostile work environment.
Both Middleton and the residents voiced their concerns at a recent Anne Arundel County Council meeting. While the shelter receives annual grant funding from the county and from the city of Annapolis, it's operated privately.
Shelter staff vehemently deny the complaints of harassment and discrimination, which come a year after the shelter celebrated an $8.3 million expansion to a newly built facility that enables the center to accommodate more residents, who are provided with job training during their time at the shelter.
Elizabeth Kinney, the shelter's executive director, said she has cooperated with the EEOC and the Human Relations Commission, which has made visits to the shelter.
"We're quite confident that the claim of discrimination is unsubstantiated," said Kinney. "It distracts from our mission. We have a lot of work to do. We're really focused on supporting people and doing the work that we're committed to."
Pam Siemer, the director of development and communication at the shelter, called the allegations "bogus." She referred to Middleton, who said in an interview that she was not sure why she was fired but thought it could have been because she prayed at work, as a "disgruntled former employee."
Middleton, who worked as a case manager at the shelter for three years, said the environment in the shelter was chaotic and dysfunctional, with staff members punishing some residents arbitrarily. Middleton said she was directed on more than one occasion to evict residents with "no investigation, no anything."
Middleton acknowledged that she was fired but said the reasons were "unclear" to her. "I came to work every day. I didn't break any policies. I represented my clients."
"This really isn't about me," said Middleton. "This is about the operation of the shelter. It's for the residents. They deserve to be treated with respect and dignity."
Yevola S. Peters, the county's human relations coordinator, confirmed that the commission is investigating eight complaints it received from former residents. Peters said she could not comment on the scope of the complaints but that the shelter has been cooperative.
A spokeswoman for the EEOC said the complaint process is confidential and would neither confirm nor deny the existence of a complaint.
The shelter, on Hudson Street, is owned by the nonprofit Annapolis Area Ministries. The 24,000-square-foot facility features five apartments serving up to 30 people, an emergency shelter, and a resource center offering education, job training and help in life skills. It also houses a day center for the chronically homeless, where people can shower, do laundry, and have access to job training and counseling services.
County Councilman Chris Trumbauer, a Democrat who represents Annapolis, said he met with the shelter's executive director after hearing the complaints and moved to ensure that the complaints were investigated through the proper channels.
"There's two sides to every story, obviously," said Trumbauer. "It's not the county's role, as I perceive it, to get directly involved."