Michael Love was hired, housed and fired by HomeFirst — one of five ex-employees who say the nonprofit targeted them because they are Black.
Love and four other fired workers told San José Spotlight they faced racial discrimination and were abruptly let go without cause. An investigation by this news organization uncovered additional claims of a toxic work environment at the $40-million-plus nonprofit, including two women of color who quit because of the environment and three single moms on the brink of losing their jobs because of child care schedules.
The five Black former employees were fired for reasons ranging from alleged violence to insubordination, according to sources who reviewed their records. All five are disputing the terminations.
San José Spotlight interviewed more than half a dozen current and former employees who allege HomeFirst‘s leadership has fostered a work culture that’s led to high turnover.
HomeFirst has denied the allegations and said it stands by the terminations. The ex-employees are considering their legal options.
Love, 59, worked at HomeFirst shelters for nearly four years before being fired in early October. He still can’t understand why.
“It seems like I moved forward and all of a sudden, I moved backward,” Love told San José Spotlight.
The formerly homeless man said he was terminated from his job at the Sunnyvale Family Shelter because he brought his dog to work. But Love said he had previously been told he could bring the dog if it had proper certifications. His managers were aware Love had been homeless for five years and had nowhere else to leave the dog.
But the rules were inexplicably changed in September and the dog was no longer allowed, he said. After the nonprofit helped him secure housing in late September, Love said he left the dog at home.
It didn’t matter. HomeFirst fired him soon after.
The firing came as a shock, he added, because of conflicting messages from managers and the rules being abruptly changed.
Other than one write-up about his dog and a handful of absences last year, Love’s file had no complaints, according to civil rights leaders who reviewed it.
“This guy should be on billboards around the county,” said Rev. Jethroe Moore II, president of the local NAACP branch. Love is HomeFirst’s poster child “success story” because he landed a job and overcame homelessness, Moore added.
HomeFirst Chief Operating Officer René Ramirez said his team reviewed the decisions for each firing and found they had followed company procedures. He said HomeFirst typically follows a progressive disciplinary process, which includes verbal or written warnings and a corrective action plan before termination. Some cases, however, can lead directly to termination.
“There are times when infractions or violations of policies are so egregious or cause safety concern, in which case we may terminate before having a typical write-up,” Ramirez said. He declined to elaborate further on the terminations, citing personnel privacy issues.
Terminated and discriminated
In response to the allegations, HomeFirst officials met with Moore and other advocates near the end of October to discuss the terminations. The former employees shared more than two dozen grievances about the workplace, sources told San José Spotlight, including requests from several ex-employees to be rehired. Other requests included hazard pay, adding a break room at the Sunnyvale shelter, trauma and racial sensitivity trainings for managers and pay for interrupted lunches.
Moore sent a letter on Oct. 2 accusing HomeFirst of racial discrimination at the Sunnyvale Family Shelter.
Anntonette Flowers, a Black woman, was fired in 2021 for allegedly yelling at a client. She told San José Spotlight that HomeFirst leadership claimed to have an audio recording of her yelling, but she was not given a chance to listen to the tape to confirm if it was her voice.
Her brother, Archie Flowers, also worked at the Sunnyvale Family Shelter and was fired last year for “insubordination,” he said. He said he had accidentally texted a client while off work, and the client complained to shelter management and said he’d stalked her. The client later recanted her accusations, but management upheld his firing.
Larry Thomas, a Black man who was fired by HomeFirst in August, said he was given the boot after he tried to help a colleague who was being attacked by an intoxicated client. He interceded to stop the fight. After the fight, both Larry Thomas and his colleague Leroy Thomas —who is also Black—were fired. The two men are not related.
Larry Thomas worked at the Sunnyvale shelter for four years. He had no other grievances in his file before this incident, according to Moore.
After they were fired, photos of Love, Larry Thomas and Leroy Thomas were posted in a shelter security log banning their entry. Larry Thomas said he was told by a HomeFirst executive during the meeting with the NAACP that his photo was posted because he “looked angry” while being fired.
Moore said they were displayed “like criminal mugshots.”
“Growing up as a Black person, you experience certain types of things that affect you, but this was one that really hit different,” Larry Thomas told San José Spotlight. “I’m not the person who they seem to have made me out to be, off of one incident.”
HomeFirst leaders reiterated they cannot discuss personnel matters. The five former employees signed waivers at the meeting to share their confidential employee files with Moore. Ramirez told San José Spotlight that the employees could request their files and make them public, which he believes would “reinforce the justified reasons for these terminations.”
Ramirez said HomeFirst has about 450 employees and 14% are Black. The Sunnyvale Family Shelter—where all five were fired —has around 30 employees and 38% are Black.
“Racial profiling has nothing to do with the termination of the five employees,” Ramirez told San José Spotlight.
Child care or a job
The letter also claims three women — two Black women and one Latina, who work at the Sunnyvale shelter — face termination by HomeFirst if they can’t find child care. The women were given scheduling accommodations in the past.
“HomeFirst’s mission is to help people stay employed and stay housed,” Moore told San José Spotlight. “When you take their jobs away, then you’re contributing to that problem.”
One of the three mothers at risk of being fired, who requested anonymity, told San José Spotlight that her shift change conflicted with her responsibilities as a mom. She said her former HomeFirst manager provided scheduling accommodations but that was taken away about two months ago.
She said she was told her schedule could not be accommodated for “safety reasons,” but was not provided an explanation.
“What bothers me is the fact that I’m not given a good reason or excuse as to why the schedule cannot be accommodated,” she said. “Why can’t they work with the moms, especially the fact that we’re all single moms. … it just applies more pressure.”
The source told San José Spotlight that she has no one to help with child care. She said she’ll have to find another job and worries how she’ll provide for her children if she’s unemployed.
“I’ve explained to them my situation as well, but they’re just not willing to work with us and, as a mom, I take it as kind of offensive,” she told San José Spotlight.
A toxic work culture
Other former HomeFirst employees who spoke to San José Spotlight raised concerns about its work culture.
One former employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said they resigned this year due to unfair treatment and racism they witnessed in the human resources department. They say their manager complained that the nonprofit had hired “too many Mexicans” and began to tally the number of minority employees from each race.
Another former employee, who resigned two years ago, claimed time clock fraud and being paid less than they were owed. They requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“I started getting hyper aware of work because I didn’t feel comfortable there,” they said. “I have a passion for working for unhoused individuals. … But after I worked with HomeFirst, I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
When they tried to raise the issue with their supervisor’s bosses or with human resources, they said they received no answer. San José Spotlight reviewed email records to verify these claims.
HomeFirst has not received any hostile work environment claims, Ramirez said, often a first step before an employee takes legal action.
The Office of Federal Compliance Programs audited HomeFirst’s equal employment opportunity policies and found no violations, according to HomeFirst officials. HomeFirst has also received a three-year accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, a nonprofit that accredits human service providers based on quality standards, nonprofit officials said.
Ramirez confirmed HomeFirst will not rehire any of the terminated employees. He stressed that their firings had nothing to do with the color of their skin.
“We followed our typical processes for addressing employee concerns, whether that included write-ups or investigations — whatever that might have been,” Ramirez told San José Spotlight. “There is no racial profiling done.”
Moore believes some of the fired employees had the potential to be rehired.
“They were good employees before and (had) just one incident,” Moore said. “They seem to be decent human beings who want to work with the homeless population and enjoy working with the homeless population.”
Concerns over these allegations were also raised by the San Jose City Council as officials considered renewing the city’s $6.2 million contract with HomeFirst. The fired employees and supporters also spoke out at the Sunnyvale City Council and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meetings last month.
Love said he felt “degraded” by his firing, especially after using HomeFirst’s programs to get housing.
“I went through you guy’s company to be housed and suddenly you take my job away?” Love said. “Now how am I supposed to pay my rent?”