Cities investigate misconduct claims against Downtown Streets Team

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Downtown Streets Team
At least six public agencies say they’re re-evaluating contracts with homeless services provider Downtown Streets Team. Credit: Santa Cruz Good Times

Last week, the Pacific Sun broke the story of accusations by former employees against Downtown Streets Team CEO Eileen Richardson and her son, Director of Program Operations Chris Richardson, who they say made lewd comments, paid women less than men for the same work and promoted a toxic, hard-partying workplace culture.

As a result, several public agencies say they’re re-evaluating contracts with the tax-exempt, $8 million-a-year homeless services provider, which has offered job training and case management for homeless people since its founding in 2005.

Based in San Jose, the nonprofit expanded into the North Bay in 2013, landing contracts with San Rafael and Novato.

In July 2018, the San Rafael City Council signed a fresh contract with DST for services through June 2021. At a meeting this October, the Novato City Council renewed its contract with DST through June 2021.

Representatives from San Rafael, San Jose, Sunnyvale, Redwood City and Palo Alto have said they are looking into the claims raised by the Pacific Sun. Novato, Santa Cruz, Modesto, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Salinas, Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco have yet to respond to requests for comment.

San Rafael Director of Homeless Planning Andrew Hening led DST’s expansion to the North Bay in 2013. Hening worked for DST between July 2011 and February 2016, according to his LinkedIn profile.

“As DST’s first employment developer and later as the Manager of Employment Services, [Hening] oversaw all of the nonprofit’s workforce development efforts in Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, and San Jose. In July of 2013, [Hening] relocated to Marin to launch DST’s first team outside of Santa Clara County,” Hening’s biography on San Rafael’s website states.

“I left DST almost four years ago and do not have a comment beyond that,” Hening said when asked about his work for DST.

The city is about halfway through a three-year, $300,000 contract with the nonprofit, which has “always met or exceeded” its obligations since it struck a partnership with the city in 2013, Hening said in response to questions about the city’s current contract. However, he said the city will investigate the claims that surfaced through the Pacific Sun’s reporting.

“The city had no idea about any of these allegations before this article, and we are looking into them in more detail,” he said. “We have upcoming stakeholder meetings, including with our council’s homeless subcommittee, where we’ll get more feedback on next steps.”

Pressure Mounts, New Details Emerge

The Richardsons have yet to publicly respond to the claims by Zia MacWilliams, Michelle Fox Wiles and several other former DST employees. But in a message posted to her staff-wide Slack channel, the senior Richardson dismissed the accusations as baseless.

“Allegations referenced in the … article were brought to light in a complaint made several years after the employees had separated from DST,” she wrote, according to a screenshot obtained by the Pacific Sun. “However, the complaint was thoroughly examined as part of an independent investigation conducted by the DST Board of Directors. While the investigation did lead to several procedural changes and the implementation of new ‘best practices’ to improve the organization, the salacious accusations made in this article were found to be without merit and do not reflect the organization’s culture.”

Eileen Hunter, who worked as a DST case manager from 2014 to 2015, begged to differ.

“The article was spot on,” she said.

As one of the older employees in her late 50s at the time, Hunter said she found the alcohol abuse by management to be reckless and demoralizing.

“I witnessed the drunkenness,” she said. “It was really bad.”

Wiles, who left DST and the nonprofit sector entirely four years ago, echoed Hunter’s claims. The organization encouraged and even subsidized drinking, she added.

“There were multiple happy hours outside the office where Chris or Eileen purchased the alcohol and indicated that it would be on the company’s dime, including keeping the receipts for reimbursement if it wasn’t put on a company card,” Wiles said. “I can also say that there was alcohol provided in office frequently that I saw come in via delivery service that was paid for alongside the snacks provided. This alcohol was frequently consumed during all-hands meetings and openly in the office, often times before 5pm.”

Further evidence of the drinking and partying being tolerated, laughed off and even encouraged by upper management emerged in old emails provided to the Pacific Sun this week by former employees.

In one message dated Dec. 4, 2012—back when DST had little more than 10 people on the payroll—Chris Richardson facetiously threatened to alert a departing staffer’s new employer about her “serious alcohol/drug problem [JOKING!] (sic).” Later in that same message, he joked about hoping to draw a different employee in an upcoming Secret Santa gift exchange so he could get her “some sort of glass ‘tobacco pipe’ ;-).”

In another email from the same week leading up to the 2012 holiday party, Hening cited a Wikipedia entry that describes Secret Santa exchanges as often being exploited to “breach social norms of the workplace environment by being sexual in nature or mocking personality, tastes and lifestyles of the recipient.”

“Certainly this type of base, unprofessional behavior runs counter to the culture here at DST,” Hening wrote, “but perhaps just this once we can throw caution to the wind.”

It’s still unclear whether DST’s dysfunction at the top impacted its work with local governments. But an Aug. 5 letter from San Jose’s Housing Department details several concerns about DST’s ability to meet the terms of its contracts.

When the city asked for proof of DST’s reported success of helping clients increase their wages, find housing or secure referrals for social services, the nonprofit apparently had nothing to show for most of it.

“Amongst the participants on the list provided by the grantee, the majority did not have evidence of their claimed increase in income or achievement of permanent housing in their case file,” Robert Lopez, a development officer for the San Jose Housing Department, wrote in the August letter about DST’s encampment cleanup contract.

The housing department also found that DST lacked evidence to show that all the clients it served were even homeless or from San Jose, as per the terms of its deal, and that case files provided by the nonprofit were insufficient and inconsistent.

Finally, Lopez added, DST didn’t assign enough employees to keep up with its contractual obligations in San Jose. While the city expected at least one case manager per 20 clients, DST had a single employee responsible for 138 potential program participants.

Just a year before San Jose criticized DST for failing to prove that its programs perform as promised, a joint task force comprising the League of California Cities and California State Association of Counties deemed the Streets Team model one of five “evidence-based” “best practices” for ending homelessness. When asked for a response to the claims published by the Pacific Sun last week, League of California Cities spokeswoman Kayla Woods said that the task force focused on DST’s outcomes—not its internal operations.

“As a result,” she said, “the league is not in a position to comment on any allegations.”

Additional reporting by Will Carruthers.

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