HomeFirst Chief Executive Officer Andrea Urton speaks at the Sunnyvale City Council meeting.
HomeFirst Chief Executive Officer Andrea Urton presented metrics about the nonprofit's services in Santa Clara County at the Sunnyvale City Council meeting on Nov. 14, 2023. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

HomeFirst CEO Andrea Urton is stepping down, leaving questions about the future of one of Santa Clara County’s largest homeless support service providers.

The group’s board of directors said today Urton’s departure is effective immediately. She led the nonprofit through expansions and setbacks during her nine-year tenure. In recent years, HomeFirst has come under intense scrutiny by homeless advocates and government officials about its services’ success rates, as well as allegations of racism and a toxic work environment. A state audit in April also drew more attention to San Jose’s lack of accountability and spending on homeless services, including some provided by HomeFirst.

“I am deeply grateful for the dedication of our staff, the trust of our clients, and incredible community of people and organizations working together to address our local homeless crisis,” Urton said in a statement. “Together, we have significantly advanced our mission and compassionately served those in need.”

Before stepping down, Urton had been on leave for three months, with Chief Operating Officer René Ramirez serving as interim CEO. He will continue in that role and said the nonprofit’s board of directors hopes to find a permanent CEO in about three months.

Ramirez said he is confident HomeFirst’s services will not be affected by the transition, and that he hopes whoever is selected as permanent CEO is a strong leader, fits into the nonprofit’s culture and serves the homeless population with empathy. The board of directors will conduct a nationwide search, and while some board members have lived experiences of being homeless, only one has used HomeFirst’s services in the past.

He also said Urton’s departure is not connected to any of the recent controversies the nonprofit has faced.

“I’ve been here during the time in which these allegations were surfacing and as I’ve said before and I continue to say, I stand by any decisions that we’ve made,” Ramirez told San José Spotlight. “As interim CEO, I will continue to navigate those situations as necessary and do what we can do to show the community that we are an agency with integrity, and do everything on high moral and legal grounds.”

He added that some of the nonprofit’s future contracts with county and city governments include reporting more metrics, and that he welcomes the increased transparency.

HomeFirst had a budget of $50 million in 2023 and operates a wide variety of homeless support services and has contracted with Santa Clara County and multiple cities, including San Jose and Sunnyvale. It also runs temporary housing and rapid rehousing programs throughout the county.

The nonprofit used to operate the county’s 145-bed North County Shelter, located in Sunnyvale, but pulled out earlier this year, citing the spread of misinformation about allegations of racism.

Todd Langton, executive director of homelessness nonprofit Agape Silicon Valley and founder of the Coalition for the Unhoused of Silicon Valley, said he often hears complaints from homeless people about abuse and shelter conditions at HomeFirst locations. He said this transition will serve as a good opportunity to improve those conditions.

Langton added it’s the responsibility of county and city officials to ensure services for unhoused residents are not dropped in this transition. He also hopes that whoever takes over as the permanent CEO has hands-on experience working directly to support homeless residents.

“The status quo of HomeFirst needs to change,” Langton told San José Spotlight. “Hopefully there’s a complete overhaul, but not at the expense of those who are sheltered and receiving services.”

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

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