Last week, San Jose Inside 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.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, one of Eileen Richardson’s most vocal and prominent cheerleaders, said through a spokeswoman that he’s unavailable to weigh in at this time. But the city’s housing officials confirmed that they’re looking into the claims—as are Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz, Redwood City, Palo Alto and San Rafael.
Valley Water, which hires DST to clean up South Bay waterways, is also in discussions about how to address the situation.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said he knew about the claims against the Richardsons as early as this past spring and asked administration to look into them. “Our office was made aware of the allegations seven months ago in May, and our office immediately contacted County Counsel and the Office of Supportive Housing to investigate the matter,” his spokeswoman Charlsie Chang said in an email.
Despite alerting officials to those concerns, Simitian last month sent out a news release applauding the county’s effort to get more funding for Eileen Richardson’s related non-profit, Peninsula Healthcare Connection, which works hand-in-hand with DST.
Santa Cruz County, meanwhile, is delving into the accusations in light of last week’s news. “We did read the story, and the allegations were troubling enough that we are writing a letter to the Downtown Streets Team Board asking them to affirm whether the actions did indeed occur, and to describe any corrective actions taken,” county spokesman Jason Hoppin said.
Palo Alto, where DST landed its first contract 14 years ago, is taking a similar tack.
“Obviously, the city does not condone the type of behavior reported,” Palo Alto Vice Mayor Adrian Fine wrote in an email. “At the same time, the city needs to be thoughtful on how to respond and learn more before exploring potential next steps. City staff is reaching out to the Downtown Streets Team to learn more about the allegations raised.”
The cities of Modesto, Sacramento, West Sacramento, Salinas, Novato, Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco have yet to respond to requests for comment.
San Jose’s Housing Department, which has given DST $8 million in the past seven years, offered similar assurances. “We have seen the article,” the division’s spokesman, Jeff Scott, wrote in an email earlier this week. “Our department has one contract with DST and we are reviewing that contract to determine what action, if any, the city should take.”
San Jose Councilwoman Sylvia Arenas said she also urged the offices of City Attorney Rick Doyle and City Auditor Joe Rois to investigate the claims against DST and that she expects “a full review of this matter.”
“Sexual harassment on the job has a deeply detrimental impact—especially on women in the workforce,” the District 8 council rep said. “The allegations regarding an unsafe work environment at Downtown Streets Team—if true—are alarming, and are not acceptable for any company, especially an organization receiving funding paid for by taxpayers. … For Downtown Streets Team’s work in San Jose to continue they must be in full compliance with the non-discrimination clause in their contract.”
Since 2011, some of the city’s general fund and share of federal community block grants have gone to a partnership between DST and the San Jose Downtown Association (SJDA), which hires homeless people to clean and beautify the city’s core. Participants who graduate from the program after volunteering in exchange for gift cards earn a chance to apply for jobs at DST or SJDA that pay a living wage, which will amount to $22.68 an hour once the clock strikes 2020.
Chloe Shipp, who oversees SJDA’s Groundwerx-DST “work experience” program, says the allegations came as a shock to her and her colleagues. She said SJDA doesn’t interact directly with DST’s management team but with its homeless clients, who have always exhibited the utmost professionalism. If the charges against DST executives result in leadership change, she said she hopes it doesn’t interrupt any of the front-line services.
“Locally, we’ve always been very fortunate to have professional staff working with our program manager,” Shipp said. “My hope is that there’s no impact to the services provided because the services they provide are so vital.”
Jennifer Garnett, Sunnyvale’s PR point person, called the allegations in last week’s article “concerning” and said the city is trying to “determine the facts before taking any action.”
San Rafael Director of Homeless Planning Andrew Hening—who used to work for Downtown Streets Team—said the city is about halfway through a three-year, $300,000 contract with the non-profit, which has “always met or exceeded” its obligations since it struck a partnership with the city in 2013. However, he said the city will investigate the claims that surfaced through San Jose Inside’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.”
Redwood City, which recently budgeted $757,000 over the next two years for DST to put homeless people to work, has taken a similar approach. In a statement forwarded to this news organization, Mayor Diane Howard said “city staff will be looking into the allegations that have been made and will be reporting back to” the City Council.
“Also,” she added, “we have decided not to have a presentation by the Downtown Streets Team this Monday night [Dec. 16] until we have the information we need to make the decision to move forward.”
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 San Jose Inside. “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 non-profit sector entirely four years ago, echoed Hunter’s claims. Drinking was encouraged and even subsidized by the organization, 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 San Jose Inside 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—then a manager at DST—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 non-profit 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.
He said the same about DST’s pilot program to beautify Monterey Road.
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 non-profit 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 last week by this news outlet, 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.”
Will Carruthers and Jake Pierce also contributed to this report.
This article has been updated.