Silicon Valley leaders question nonprofit on alleged discrimination

(BCN) — Two Santa Clara County city councils aired grievances to HomeFirst officials following a range of concerns related to services and allegations of racial discrimination.

The Sunnyvale City Council heard a presentation Tuesday from HomeFirst Chief Executive Officer Andrea Urton and Chief Program Officer Kelly Vazquez about the nonprofit’s city support services and broader metrics countywide. City officials had asked for more information on services after extending HomeFirst’s contract for six months. Earlier in the day, the San Jose City Council also briefly discussed its contracts with HomeFirst for two overnight warming shelters, voicing concerns about the NAACP allegations of racial discrimination in the firings of five former employees.

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The Sunnyvale council’s decision on the contract will come in March, but councilmembers want more information first, specifically on the city’s five reserved shelter beds at the Boccardo Reception Center in San Jose.

At the Sunnyvale meeting, councilmembers received a fact sheet that said 15 individuals had used the reserved beds for an average of 19 days, over the course of a year. Councilmember Murali Srinivasan pointed out that this was about a 15% use for the beds, and used only by 10% of the 152 clients. When asked by Councilmember Linda Sell why the beds have a low use rate, Urton said HomeFirst initially told the city it didn’t believe the beds would be successful because of the distance.

“People like to stay where they have family and friends, where they know people. They know how to get to the store. They know how to use the bus,” Urton said.

Councilmember Alysa Cisneros asked questions about the nonprofit’s data collection and internal Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Council. She told San Jose Spotlight it was important to learn not just what information is collected, but with what methods and how the information is being synthesized.

The NAACP San Jose/Silicon Valley branch alleges HomeFirst has been racially discriminating against Black employees, citing five firings over the course of two years and inflexibility while scheduling three single mothers of color, two of whom are Black. Cisneros cited these allegations as cause for concern over HomeFirst’s treatment of employees and clients of color.

At the meeting, Urton suggested Cisneros visit a HomeFirst DEI council meeting to learn more about its procedures. Cisneros told San Jose Spotlight the council’s work speaks to how the organization interacts with people of color who are employees or clients at HomeFirst.

“Whether everything is true or not, (what) people are saying or alleging, I think it’s 100% fair to ask HomeFirst to explain why this would not happen in their organization, and be able to give that insight with certainty in a way that marks us feel comfortable and confident,” Cisneros told San Jose Spotlight.

San Jose concerns

Multiple San Jose councilmembers voiced similar concerns earlier in the day. At the San Jose council meeting, Urton said the nonprofit hired an employment attorney to review all five terminations and the attorney found that all five cases were appropriate.

HomeFirst Chief Operating Officer Rene Ramirez also said Urton has reached out to NAACP San Jose/Silicon Valley President Rev. Jethroe Moore II, but has yet to receive a response. Ramirez told San Jose Spotlight HomeFirst is not currently considering rehiring the fired employees, but is working with three single mothers to accommodate their child care needs alongside their work schedules.

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He added the council has been overviewing the nonprofit’s diversity policies, including hiring practices, and is looking for ways to become more involved in termination processes.

“We’re trying to figure out … what can this DEI council review to ensure or at least bring some peace of mind to the council and to our workforce, that everything is being done appropriately and legally,” said Ramirez, who co-chairs the council.

Moore said he’s discouraged by the San Jose council’s discussion, suggesting that councilmembers should talk with the former employees to get a better understanding of the situation. He added he was initially told the nonprofit would consider bringing some of the former employees back, but acknowledged that he also needed to follow up on his conversations with HomeFirst officials before deciding what to do next.

“They’re playing games (with) people’s lives,” Moore told San Jose Spotlight. “They don’t care about their employees. My concern is, how can they care for those who are unhoused?”

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