The exterior of a homeless shelter in Sunnyvale
HomeFirst is stepping away from managing the homeless shelter in Sunnyvale starting in June. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

One of Santa Clara County’s largest homeless service providers is stepping back from operating a 145-bed shelter in North County.

HomeFirst will stop operating the North County Shelter in Sunnyvale by the end of June, passing shelter operations to another provider which the county has yet to identify. Over the past few months, HomeFirst has faced allegations of racism, and government officials across Santa Clara County have questioned their contracts with the nonprofit.

“The environment within the community has been unfortunately based on a small number of uninformed voices, and we felt that continuing to operate the shelter was a distraction from our other important work,” René Ramirez, chief operations officer for HomeFirst, told San José Spotlight. “It has been extremely difficult to work within a framework that perpetuates misinformation, rather than partnership to address challenges.”

HomeFirst has contracts with Santa Clara County to operate three other shelters — Boccardo Reception Center in San Jose, Gilroy Shelter and Mountain View Cold Weather Shelter. It operates on a $40 million budget, the majority of which comes from government funding. Santa Clara County has grappled with homelessness for the past decade, as the region’s population continues to grow. As of last year, the county’s homeless population has grown 3% since 2019, totaling 10,028 people.

At a county Board of Supervisors meeting in December, supervisors extended HomeFirst’s contract for operating the Sunnyvale shelter by three months to look for other potential operators. According to the March 26 meeting agenda, HomeFirst reapplied and the county’s Office of Supportive Housing selected the nonprofit to continue operating the shelter, which it has been running since 1990, as its most qualified applicant.

HomeFirst officials then decided to withdraw the application and suggested the county find another operator.

Office of Supportive Housing Director Consuelo Hernandez said the county agreed that finding another operator is best for the community at this time.

“The county remains committed to providing a safe and positive environment for people who are served at the North County Shelter and all temporary housing facilities in Santa Clara County,” Hernandez told San José Spotlight.

County documents show officials expect to return to the board by May 7 with recommendations for an interim provider in HomeFirst’s absence. Ramirez said the organization will work with the county to ensure a smooth transition, and that it will not have any decision-making authority while the county looks for another operator.

Homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright alleges HomeFirst is stepping away to avoid being held accountable by the county. She said this calls into question how the nonprofit’s leaders may react when questioned about contracts with other local governments.

“San Jose should look at this and be concerned that HomeFirst didn’t want to be held accountable (with the county) and when it got tough, just walked away from a contract,” Cartwright told San José Spotlight.

Cartwright added that pulling out of the contract leaves shelter employees questioning their job security. Ramirez said HomeFirst alerted the shelter’s workers about the decision via email Wednesday and will be having more discussions about the transition next week.

County supervisors will hear about the $1 million contract extension with HomeFirst and finding another operator at the March 26 board meeting. The San Jose City Council is also slated to discuss a $4.2 million contract with HomeFirst for homeless outreach the same day.

Ramirez said he does not expect HomeFirst’s decision to affect its other contracts with the county.

“We continue to be a major provider of choice for the county given our long-term expertise,” he told San José Spotlight.

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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