The warming center at Durango Christian Church was established in November to provide temporary relief from the elements for the homeless. It was met with mixed reactions by Durango residents, including concerns that it would attract more crime to the neighborhood.
Now, disagreement comes not from outside the warming center, but from within the nonprofit that runs it, Community Compassion Outreach.
Peer support professionals who provided client services at the warming center at Durango Christian Church were fired in December by CCO’s president, Donna Mae Baukat, after continuous disputes about workplace boundaries.
Baukat told The Durango Herald that client services have been put on hold until a new group of peer support professionals – people with lived experiences in substance abuse and homelessness who act as advocates, mentors and guides to more resources – can be hired through a revamped hiring process. In the meantime, the temporary sanctuary for unhoused residents through the winter will continue to operate.
That means the center will continue to be open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays through April. The center still has volunteers and is looking for more, Baukat said.
Brittany Best and Miguel Ramos, two former peer support professionals for CCO, said their grievances stem from Baukat contacting them at odd hours, addressing staff problems in group and public-facing messages as opposed to one-on-one discourse. They also complained that time sheets and client interaction logs were due on weekend days off.
“She likes to do this a lot,” Best said. “If someone does something wrong then she will correct them or make a big deal out of it in the employee text message thread and embarrass them in front of anyone that they can.”
Ramos started with CCO on Oct. 10 and his first check fell short of what he said he was owed, even though he was on salary. He said the conflict caused him to fall back into depression. He called Baukat’s management style “tyrannical.”
Olivia de Pablo, member of the CCO board of directors, defended the former staff members’ concerns and said she plans to resign.
Baukat said she had back surgery on Nov. 15, and since then, she has heard “nothing but complaints” about her texting and emailing staff members instructions from home, where she works most of the time.
She said client interaction logs and other record keeping were not completed or submitted as she requires and that Ramos and Best swore at her in text messages after she fired them, which Best denied.
Her employer attorney has read all communications between herself and staff and is advising her on how to “handle disgruntled employees,” Baukat said. “If it comes to a court case, an employer case, you know we’re covered.”
Baukat said emails directed to CCO volunteers from former peer support professionals described CCO as a “toxic workspace” even though she has only returned to her office this week since her surgery in November.
She is working mostly from home because of health issues and the messages she sends staff members are her efforts to maintain communication, she said.
“They have no real case toward me,” she said. “I have been paying them full-time, and they have a time sheet where they worked 22 hours, 30 hours and maybe one week of 40 hours. I’ve been paying them full salary. They’ve been getting $23 an hour full salary until I was able to get to the point where they’re pushing me.”
Pablo said former staff members wanted Baukat to resign so they could continue the organization’s efforts to provide to the homeless. Staff members pursued mediation through meetings that were canceled beforehand.
Baukat submitted a letter of resignation to CCO’s board the week of Dec. 12, but the board rejected it because her help was needed to continue the organization’s mission, she said. The board consists of Stephen Baukat (Baukat’s spouse), Pablo and Johnie Ragsdale.
“My behavior may be questioned,” Baukat said. “… I even yielded. I gave the board my resignation. I decided to send a resignation letter (to the board) so I could deal with these personal issues toward me so that Community Compassion Outreach could go forward.”
Pablo said she never heard an official rejection to Baukat’s resignation letter from her fellow board members.
CCO will go forward, but with some changes. The organization will undergo a restructuring in the coming months, starting Jan. 1, Baukat said. She will strengthen her hiring process for peer support professionals with help from Axis Health Systems.
“You have to understand that the only reason I opened this is because I have a family here,” she said. “Homeless people have been my family since I started to work with the homeless. And I don’t want to see them frozen to death. That is the only reason why that program is going to continue.”
The warming center serves seven to 18 homeless guests on Tuesdays and Fridays, with a turnout of 25 guests for a Christmas party held on Dec. 20, Baukat said. It has a maximum capacity of 50 guests at a time.
The center opened in November with a call for volunteers. CCO made an unsuccessful funding request to Durango City Council in late November, which voted 4-1 to deny funds because the majority of councilors did not approve of the center’s location at Durango Christian Church, 255 E. 11th St. Mayor Barbara Noseworthy was the sole member of council to vote in favor of funding the nonprofit’s efforts.
In an interview with The Durango Herald on Dec. 23, Noseworthy said she dropped by the warming center on Dec. 13 because she wanted to see how it was working out. She counted 10 guests, including one child, two dogs belonging to guests and four staff members with either CCO or another organization such as Manna.
She asked several people how the warming center is working for them.
“They said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a godsend to have this available.’ Some were chatting with each other. Some were just kind of napping with their dog, kind of resting,” she said. “Most anybody I talked to said it was important to have.”
CCO later made a successful funding request of $11,600 for operational expenses to La Plata County Commissioners, who supported the request unanimously.
Baukat said the biggest challenge she and her remaining staff members and volunteers face now is having to tell people they need to leave at 5 p.m. when the shelter closes, despite freezing and snowy weather conditions. But they will manage it, she said.
The warming center will remain open without peer support services, Baukat said. For now, the unhoused residents of Durango for whom the center was opened will continue to have a warm place to rest.