Santa Clara County officials are moving ahead with a temporary contract extension for homeless support services, despite uneasiness over allegations of discrimination by the nonprofit provider.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved a three-month, $2 million contract extension with homeless service provider HomeFirst to operate the Boccardo Reception Center in San Jose and Sunnyvale Family Shelter. But the extension was met with controversy, after advocates spoke out against HomeFirst during public comment, calling for the county to divest from the organization and investigate allegations of discrimination within the organization.
Speakers cited a recent incident involving a homeless Black woman who police removed from the Sunnyvale Family Shelter in mid-November and was subsequently banned from all HomeFirst shelters for an alleged assault.
Raj Jayadev, co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, which fights for criminal justice reform, economic justice and housing rights, said the incident should not have been escalated and that the ban was unwarranted.
“I don’t believe this is the time to send them more millions of dollars,” Jayadev said. “There should be an independent review or investigation of HomeFirst.”
HomeFirst Chief Operations Officer René Ramirez said the commenters were misinformed about the specifics around the situation and emphasized that race did not play a role in how the woman was treated. He also told San José Spotlight she filed an appeal with HomeFirst on Tuesday to overturn the ban, which was lifted that day.
“We stand by all of the decisions that we’ve made over the past few months. We welcome an investigation, we welcome further conversation around these allegations,” Ramirez told San José Spotlight. “We are willing to be as transparent as we can be.”
After hearing public comment, supervisors clarified the extension is necessary to help county officials continue exploring other possible homeless service providers. This also gives the county more time to review its contract with HomeFirst.
County policy imposes a five-year limit on third-party contracts, after which the contract has to be reviewed and proposals are open for other potential vendors. The county put out a request for qualified providers in August and invited those providers to submit bids in November.
The deadline for those proposals is Jan. 12, 2024, said County Executive James Williams. Supervisors also asked for a report on HomeFirst’s handling of the allegations before the January deadline.
“At the end of the day, I want to make sure that all of our clients are being treated with dignity and respect, and that we are selecting providers that are going to be client-centered and compassionate,” Supervisor Otto Lee said.
The call for divestment follows scrutiny from officials in San Jose and Sunnyvale. In October, the local NAACP alleged discrimination in HomeFirst’s firings of five employees of the Sunnyvale Family Shelter.
“They know these people they’re dealing with have some mental issues and some drug issues,” Rev. Jethroe Moore II, president of NAACP San Jose/Silicon Valley, told San José Spotlight. “(HomeFirst is) not helping the system, they’re only clogging the system.”