Despite public calls for more scrutiny of the sexual harassment allegations against Downtown Streets Team, the Palo Alto City Council voted on Monday night to allocate the nonprofit more than $300,000 in grant funding.
The nonprofit, which has won accolades over the years for its work in providing services such as housing vouchers and mentoring to homeless individuals, is also facing accusations from numerous former employees about a hard-drinking culture and incidents of sexual harassment. The allegations were first reported by San Jose Inside and corroborated by this news organization.
The $336,400 allocation that Downtown Streets Team received Monday night was part of $856,146 in federal funding that the city is distributing to nonprofits. This includes funding from the Community Development Block Grant Program, as well as the $294,909 that Palo Alto received from the federal government through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
The list of grantees also includes nonprofits such as LifeMoves ($294,000), Project Sentinel ($37,480), Silicon Valley Independent Living Center ($75,000) and Alta Housing ($149,950 for refurbishment of Alma Place and $29,931 to help the nonprofit, which was previously known as Palo Alto Housing, support residents in its single-room occupancy units).
Some residents, however, felt that the council should take more steps to ensure that the Downtown Streets Team has addressed the allegations against its senior officers before it approves the funding. Steven Lee, a member of the Human Relations Commission, told the council Monday that if it approves the funding without verifying the nonprofit's response to the allegations, it is abdicating its responsibilities and deferring to city staff and the Downtown Streets Team board.
As a member of the commission's Selection Committee for grant funding, Lee lobbied for conditioning funding on the release of a report that was compiled by the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer, who was hired by the nonprofit in 2018 to investigate the various accusations against the nonprofit from women who had worked there.
Lee said the council must address the allegations "fully and in the public view, and hold all organizations, regardless of the great work that they may do, to the same community standards and values." He urged the council to condition the funding on the disclosure of the Oppenheimer report.
"Sexual harassment is a serious issue. If the council chooses to remain silent or does nothing to address sexual harassment, the electorate will hold the Council accountable this coming November. Silence is complicity," Lee said.
Owen Byrd, chair of the Downtown Streets Team board of directors, assured the council that the nonprofit has already spent an enormous amount of time and money investigating the allegations. The firm it hired conducted 23 interviews of current and former employees and concluded that there was no gender bias in salary levels or promotion opportunities, Byrd said. There was also no evidence that staff was rewarded based on favoritism or socializing.
He also said the report "partially substantiated" some claims about behavior at the nonprofit, pertaining to a holiday party that occurred six years ago. He said the board has since strengthened its Human Resources Department, created a board committee to oversee human resources governance and increased training.
"Where this has now come down to is (that) former employees are dissatisfied with the steps the board has taken," Byrd said. "They'd like to see us dismiss our Executive Director Eileen Richardson and Program Director Chris Richardson. The board has chosen not to do so."
Michele Dauber, professor of law at Stanford University, also urged the council to require Downtown Streets Team to share with the public a redacted version of its own investigation report. If the council approves the money based on an assurance from the organization's board chair, it would not be providing the type of "independent oversight that the community has a right to expect," she said.
"Doing less than that sends the message that you don't take sexual harassment seriously, and that you are happy to defer to staff recommendations even when they fall short of minimum standards of transparency and good public policy," Dauber said.
To date, however, city staff has declined to require the nonprofit to submit any documents pertaining to the allegations. Planning Director Jonathan Lait said Monday that it's "not the type of information that we typically request from nonprofit agencies that are engaged in (the CDBG) program." City Manager Ed Shikada concurred and said that the city looked at "questions of consistency among the organizations being granted."
The council agreed that given the nonprofit's prominence in the community and the seriousness of the allegations, the city should request the Oppenheimer report. However, council members declined to make this report contingent on this year's grant allocations. Instead, they directed staff to request that Downtown Streets Team provide some documentation relating to its response to the allegations before the end of August.
Council members Liz Kniss and Lydia Kou both lauded the organization's long track record of assisting the homeless population and said that it's difficult to see the allegations against Downtown Streets Team "continuing in the press."
Given that the city is giving a "fair amount of money" to the nonprofit, it would be appropriate for the city to see the whole report, Kniss said. "If there was some kind of allegation against one of us, we'd like that opportunity to put that to bed."
Kou agreed. She lauded the organization for its "noble mission" but agreed with residents who want to see the report. It would be great, she said, to "put this to rest."
Kou made a motion, which the council approved, that staff return before the end of August with an update about the Downtown Streets Team report. While this won't have any impact on this year's funding, Kou suggested that the nonprofit's cooperation on this issue may impact future grants.
"They're going to come back next year for more funding, so there's that opportunity," Kou said.