Sexual assault, discrimination alleged at Downtown Streets Team

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Downtown Streets Team
Director of Program Operations Chris Richardson drinks wine straight from the bag.

San Rafael signed a $300,000 contract with organization accused of boozy, toxic culture

Homeless services provider, Downtown Streets Team, has contracts in Novato, San Rafael and other cities throughout the Bay Area. It also has a troublesome hard-partying culture that attendees of a 2014 holiday staff function at its San Jose headquarters say was fully on display.

A young female staffer hired a month prior recalls mingling with colleagues by the receptionist’s desk when Eileen Richardson, the homeless services provider’s CEO, walked up to join her. “Out of nowhere,” the employee recalls, Richardson asked, “So, you’re a lesbian?”

“We were standing at the front desk chatting, tipsy on wine, and talking about how I liked the job so far,” the newcomer, who requested anonymity to protect future job prospects, later wrote about the encounter. The woman says she laughed at the prying question but answered affirmatively. Richardson then inquired about her relationship status and physical preferences before waxing poetic about feminine beauty, the ex-employee says.

“OK, so what’s your type?” she says she asked Richardson, who “suddenly got serious and sultry-eyed, leaned in and said, ‘Well, you are.’”

The night grew “increasingly strange” as guests helped themselves to boxed wine and spiked fruit punch, did keg stands—that is, hand-standing on a keg to guzzle as much beer as possible—and took swigs of hard liquor, according to the woman, who says she drank so much that she threw up in the office toilet. All the while, the employee says, an “incredibly drunk” Richardson followed her around and “had her arm around me and kept telling my friends to go ahead and leave.” The staffer says her employer began “brushing my hair back from my face, snuggling her head into my neck” as onlookers shot worried looks at the pair. 

Those same concerned co-workers eventually laid her down on the floor in the office of Richardson’s son, Director of Program Operations Chris Richardson, where the employee remembers waking up at one point to see her boss lying beside her “staring lovingly at me.”

One of the colleagues who witnessed the evening’s uncomfortably intimate conclusion “checked in with me often in the next few weeks” over Richardson’s “obvious coming on to me,” the employee says.

Others found humor in the escapade.

“Several other staff joked about Eileen having a crush on me, and there was a rumor that she’d kissed me,” the employee says. “If she did that night, I don’t recall.”

A couple of months later, the employee says she attended a Super Bowl party at Chris Richardson’s home, at which Eileen invited her to have a beer and view a photo album at her adjacent residence, where she followed her and “kissed me in the doorway of the bathroom.”

Downtown Streets Team: ‘A Frat House’

As the Bay Area’s homeless population ballooned amid an unprecedented affordability crisis over the past decade, Downtown Streets Team (DST) emerged as one of the most prominent local organizations trying to lift people out of poverty. By 2012 it had received commendations from future San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo, counted Palo Alto’s top cop as a board member and received nearly $400,000—about 40 percent of its budget—from direct government support. 

In 2013, the nonprofit expanded into the North Bay, landing contracts with the cities of San Rafael and Novato.

In July 2018, the San Rafael City Council signed a fresh $300,000 contract with DST for services through June 2021.

Behind the do-good mission of employing the unhoused, however, a toxic workplace culture festered for years, according to a dozen former staffers.

In letters prepared by attorneys and echoed in reviews on job-rating platform Glassdoor.com, ex-employees accuse both Eileen, 58, and her son Chris, 33, of sexual harassment, making lewd comments, paying women less than men for similar work and promoting a culture of heavy drinking. Employees have described the workplace as “toxic,” “a frat house,” “full of nepotism and favoritism” and “a joke.” Multiple people compared working at DST to being in an abusive relationship. 

Yet reporting misconduct proved difficult because of close friendships between the Richardsons and their strategically appointed board of directors and other managers, including Chief Operating Officer Elfreda Strydom, who until earlier this year fielded all personnel concerns. 

In all, more than a dozen former employees interviewed allege harassment, sexual assault, and discrimination at DST. Two of those ex-staffers are coming forward publicly with their claims for the first time, comparing the problems at DST with those that prompted the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in 2018 to oust its top fundraiser, Mari Ellen Loijens, amid allegations of emotional abuse, discrimination and sexual impropriety.

“Things got really, really bad,” says 34-year-old Zia MacWilliams, a DST program manager who left the nonprofit in 2017 after four progressively stressful years on the job. “I honestly believe in the mission and loved working with my clients, but internally it was just out of control.”

Downtown Streets Team
Zia MacWilliams left Downtown Streets Team after four years because of what she describes as a toxic culture that promoted heavy drinking and tolerated harassment and gender-based pay discrimination. Photo by Greg Ramar.

Michelle Fox Wiles, 29, says she cut ties with DST for much the same reason.

“There was a really sexually charged environment,” she says. “One comment that really upset me—and this was right after I started working there in 2012—was when a manager said I got my job because the girl before me was ‘so hot’ that they didn’t want to work with her because she’d be a distraction. Chris said it. So, there was that constant of gender-based harassment, plus the nonstop drinking.”

Both MacWilliams and Wiles also accuse DST of perpetuating a pay gap that privileged their male counterparts.

After she left DST a little more than two years ago, MacWilliams teamed up with Wiles and nine of their ex-colleagues to pursue legal recourse. The nonprofit Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto (CLSEPA) took the case and offered the DST board a chance to resolve the allegations out of court.

“In some ways, it is unusual for our organization to investigate the workplace culture at a fellow nonprofit,” CLSEPA attorney Scott Hochberg wrote in an October 2017 letter to DST’s governing board. “What is motivating us to reach a positive outcome, in this case, is our belief that we as nonprofit staff must embody justice and quality internally before we can reflect it out into the world through our work.”

It took a year and a month before the DST board agreed to hire the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer—a firm one CLSEPA attorney described as “well-known in the workers’ rights arena”—to investigate the allegations.

The probe, which commenced in late 2018 and concluded this past July, “substantiated a culture of drinking and inappropriate joking in the workplace,” according to an Aug. 28 letter from CLSEPA lawyer Jennifer Smith to the 11 claimants. “The board seems to be genuinely concerned about the work environment that was described,” she wrote, “although … they believe that things are better now than they were three to five years ago.”

While the board insists that the investigation found no evidence of gender-based pay disparity, Smith said in her letter that trustees expressed a desire to “see changes made.” One of the most significant changes, Smith went on to write, is that DST ramped up its reporting system by allowing employees to complain to the board directly and created a human resources position for the first time in the organization’s 14-year history. The board also conceded that alcohol “has been an issue,” Smith said, and instituted a “total prohibition.”

Richardson says she never read any of the Glassdoor reviews and is only vaguely aware of the CLSEPA negotiation. But she denies there were ever any problems with DST’s work environment. “Those claims,” she says, “were unfounded.”

A Bold Vision

A successful venture capitalist who gained global notoriety on the cusp of the 21st century as the CEO of the groundbreaking but controversial music-file-sharing platform Napster, Richardson brought the same change-the-world ethos to the charitable sector. Inspired by volunteering at a local soup kitchen after her son Chris left for college, the inveterate visionary founded Downtown Streets Team in 2005 with the resolve to end homelessness through job training and placement.

Under the DST model, local governments and business associations hire a team of homeless people to clean up streets in exchange for gift cards and case management. On its website, DST says its homeless clients, to date, have cleaned up 4,000 tons of debris from waterways that flow into the San Francisco Bay and 1.9 million cigarette butts. Since its founding, the nonprofit says it has also helped nearly 1,000 clients find jobs with average hourly wages of $14.12 and just about as many secure housing. 

DST’s “win-win-win” system of hiring the homeless, cleaning up trash and benefiting the broader community garnered renewed acclaim for the elder Richardson. Since its inception, DST has blossomed from a cash-strapped experiment in Palo Alto to a burgeoning enterprise spanning a dozen cities in two states with an $8 million annual budget.

Richardson—who makes upward of $200,000 in base pay as president and CEO of DST and an affiliated nonprofit clinic called Peninsula Healthcare Connection—has racked up numerous accolades for her nonprofit work. The San Francisco Chronicle named her a recipient of the Visionary Award earlier this year thanks to nominations from, among other dignitaries, Liccardo and his counterpart in Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf. “The honor salutes leaders who strive to make the world a better place and drive social and economic change by employing new, innovative business models and practices,” the Chron wrote about the distinction. 

The New York Times gave her a similar honor a year prior. Also in 2018, the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties’ Joint Homeless Task Force recognized DST’s model as a “best practice” for supporting homeless people. In the conference room at DST’s main office, amid commendations from elected officials and chambers of commerce, there’s a shiny blue plaque designating DST as one of the “best nonprofits to work for.”

In a blog post a few years back, Richardson credited her success to running her charitable enterprise the only way she knows how: “like a high-tech startup rather than a social service—action-oriented versus service-oriented.” To that end, she said, “we improvised, tried new ideas and constantly corrected our course.”

That constant course correction may guide the nonprofit’s growth-focused public mission, but sources say that it elided internal mismanagement, which exposed employees to workplace abuses and, at times, put vulnerable clients at risk.

Wine and Dine

When one of DST’s original clients reconnected with his estranged daughter, two case managers wanted to celebrate his success by taking them out to dinner at a white-tablecloth restaurant in Mountain View. Since the client had struggled for years with alcohol abuse, the case managers told Richardson they planned to keep it a dry affair.

“By the time I showed up with the client, Richardson already had a bottle of wine at the table and was obviously a few drinks in,” one of the case managers wrote in a play-by-play of the occasion to the DST board a few years later. “We all kind of side-eyed one another. It was super awkward and completely inappropriate.”

The case manager, who asked to withhold her name, added, “The dinner was extremely uncomfortable, as Richardson got more and more intoxicated and continued to give our client alcohol.”

The client abstained, according to the two case managers. But her dinner companions say Richardson drank enough that she began slurring her speech, and one of the staffers present felt the need to drive her home. “On the way out of the restaurant, Eileen asked [the client] if he needed her to buy him a couple of beers at 7/11 to tide him over, and he declined,” the case manager-turned-reluctant chauffeur wrote in the same summary. “I had to help Eileen walk to my car. On the way to my car, she accosted two strangers in the middle of their conversation. It was like she was leaving a concert venue or a New Year’s party; she was far too intoxicated to be the CEO of a company that just left a business-related dinner.”

After the case manager got home, she called her co-worker to ask whether she should continue working for a boss who offered booze to a client trying to get sober. “This was the first moment when I really thought there was something deeply wrong with the leadership at DST,” she wrote, “and alcohol continued to be a concerning trend at DST.”

Sources admit the drinking seemed fun when they were new hires, but it began to feel inescapable. At holiday parties, it was common for managers and staffers alike to bring sleeping bags so they could crash at the office after drinking enough to pass out. 

Erstwhile employees say one high-ranking director who was known for heavily imbibing while dressed up as Santa Claus at the annual functions made it something of a tradition for attendees to sit in his lap before they could claim a gift from under the Christmas tree. A photo of a holiday office party in 2015 shows him in his red-and-white St. Nick finery rubbing an oversized dildo on his face while Eileen Richardson apparently tries not to laugh. Another photo from that same event depicts the Santa cosplayer pouring a bag of white wine straight into the mouth of Chris Richardson, who kneels on the floor with his right fist thrust victoriously in the air. 

Like mother, like son

“Eileen had a history of getting extremely inappropriate at office functions,” one former staffer noted in a written recollection of her few-year tenure at DST. “Some of these moments were kind of funny, even to me, such as the time she twerked upside down at the office Christmas party. However, similarly to Chris, Eileen did not know when it to rein it in.”

Then there were the weekly Costco runs for booze, staff meetings where managers would partake and frequent klatches at Wine Affairs and other restaurants and bars near the office. Richardson didn’t respond to a query about whether the nonprofit footed the bill for any of the alcohol purchases.

“One concern I had with these events was that Chris would often get intoxicated and then offer jobs to various staff members,” said one of the same case managers who complained about the restaurant episode. “I can remember two separate occasions when Chris offered me [an] opportunity in a very drunken state. …I know from talking to other employees that some of them found that it would be a mistake professionally to not go out drinking with Chris, because that’s where conversations about promotions most often happen.”

MacWilliams says she felt the same way about the lush outings, which included annual trips to Wine Country where “everyone gets belligerently intoxicated.” On the Napa excursion in late August of 2016, she recounts how a manager asked Chris about having sex with a former co-worker. “Did you f*ck her in the ass?” the manager allegedly asked. “Chris laughed and went on to describe their sexual relationship,” MacWilliams says. 

One could technically opt-out of the management trips, she adds, “but it is pretty well known that you won’t have a chance at a promotion if you don’t participate.”

Moving On

In addition to the review spurred by CLSEPA, an administrative law judge deemed MacWilliams’ claims of discrimination and a hostile work environment as credible. Separately, the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing reviewed found them valid enough to grant her the right to sue DST if she so chooses. MacWilliams says she decided against litigation because she hoped CLSEPA’s amicable intervention would usher in meaningful accountability.

But the probe’s conclusion dashed any hope of true reforms, says MacWilliams, who’s now an MBA student at UC Berkeley and senior manager of federal child nutrition programs at Second Harvest Food Bank. Other than a new HR chief, she notes, leadership at DST remains virtually unaffected.

“If the same people are in charge,” she wonders, “is that real change?”

MacWilliams says she’s concerned that Santa Clara County, San Jose, Palo Alto and other public agencies continue to grant DST millions of dollars a year in taxpayer money without demanding more from the nonprofit’s leadership. When she found out that the county was considering a new several-hundred-thousand-dollar agreement with DST earlier this year, she reached out to let decision-makers know about her troubling experiences with the organization.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced what it’s like to be afraid to go to work, but it was a constant battle for myself and, I know, other women in the company,” she wrote in an Aug. 11 email to county Office of Supportive Housing Director Ky Le. “I started to believe that I had no value, and that there was nothing wrong with some of the behavior that I described in my statement.”

When she left DST, MacWilliams went on to write, she just wanted to claim unemployment benefits. Once her former colleagues went to CLSEPA, she said she began to hope “for some sort of justice” and her goals “shifted to a pursuit of leadership change, compensation for the women who … did not receive equal compensation for a period, and, ultimately, I wanted an apology.” However, she lamented: “Years later, none of this has happened. Although I have come to peace with this, I truly believe that DST should not have access to public funds until those responsible for irrevocably hurting so many people have been held responsible.”

Le says DST wound up withdrawing its application for the county grant. But Peninsula Healthcare Connection, Richardson’s other nonprofit, recently secured a federal designation that qualifies its clinic in Palo Alto for increased funding. “This is a huge step in providing quality health care services in the North County to the folks who need it most,” county Supervisor Joe Simitian, who pushed for $250,000 to help the nonprofit gain its new funding status, said in a press release about the recent milestone. “Frankly, the federal process is confusing as hell—a lot of agencies, acronyms, and aggravation. But in plain language, this new status means Downtown Streets Team will have the resources to provide health services for more people.”

DST board chair Owen Byrd—who serves as general counsel for intellectual property litigation researcher firm Lex Machina—disputes CLSEPA’s characterization that the inquiry sustained any alleged impropriety. Oppenheimer conducted “a thorough, comprehensive and professional investigation,” he says, that “unearthed no significant concerns.”

The hiring of an HR manager earlier this year had more to do with “good corporate hygiene,” he adds, than any of the claims leveled against the nonprofit. When asked for written corroboration to affirm as much, however, he refuses to share even a redacted copy or summary of the investigation. “You can take my word for it as an attorney and executive and as someone who’s dealt with stuff like this for most of my career,” Byrd says. “There’s no way on Earth that this board of directors of a valuable nonprofit in our community would not have addressed concerns that were real. We fulfilled our fiduciary duty under the law.

“And now,” he says, “we move on.”

1 COMMENT

  1. I worked on downtown street team I was the team leader and I went through a very dramatic ordeal with them firing me for reporting sexual harassment

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