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Angry and jobless: Workers blindsided by collapse of nonprofit SF SAFE

An older man with glasses and a cap stands indoors, wearing a jacket over a plaid shirt.
Furlishous Wyatt says he was blindsided by the closure of San Francisco SAFE. He was preparing to retire before abruptly losing his job. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

This year was supposed to mark the 42nd and final one that Furlishous Wyatt worked at San Francisco SAFE. But when the end finally came, it was nothing like he expected.

Wyatt, 72, was ready to retire after nearly a lifetime spent improving safety and building trust between police and the community. Instead, he lost his job when the nonprofit abruptly collapsed, leaving him with no health insurance to pay for his medications. The loss was devastating.

“I look at SAFE as being my baby,” said Wyatt, who joined the nonprofit in 1982 and was by far its longest-serving employee. "It's the death of a child.”

Wyatt is among a core group of former staffers at SF SAFE who feel their voices have not been heard as a scandal involving misspent funding from city coffers and a crypto billionaire unfolds around the nonprofit, spurring a criminal investigation into its finances and the Jan. 24 firing of its executive director, Kyra Worthy.

Wyatt and his colleagues say they didn’t get their final paychecks when the nonprofit shut down. They lost their health insurance, were not paid out for vacation time and have not received the paperwork they need to file their taxes.

“We seem like the missing link in this,” Wyatt said. “There's no thought that's been given to staff and how we're suffering and how it's affecting us because we have staff members that have to pay their rent, car notes, who have kids.”

Three adults stand near an elevator, one holding a phone, with concerned expressions.
Former San Francisco SAFE employees Gina Guitron, left, Starr Miles, center, and Furlishous Wyatt arrive at City Hall for a meeting about their missing paychecks. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

On Thursday, Wyatt and his former colleagues gathered at City Hall for a closed-door meeting with the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, which is investigating their missing payments. They were also joined by people who patrolled Mission Street as community ambassadors for the nonprofit.

Starr Miles, who worked as an operations manager for SF SAFE, said she hoped she and her colleagues would be made whole for their work.

"Somebody's got the money," Miles said. "The city's got to take care of us."

Miles, who is a minister outside of work, said she was deeply embarrassed by the scandal and worried what people would think of her, despite not knowing anything about the financial problems that were unfolding behind the scenes.

"I still say SF SAFE is a good organization," Miles said. "This organization has integrity. But it's unfortunate that this happened, that it destroyed the image."

"I mean, you never heard anything bad about SF SAFE until now, until she took over," she added.

Another staffer, who spoke on the condition that she not be named, was frustrated and heartbroken by the implosion. Born and raised in San Francisco, she said she loved her job organizing neighborhood watch groups. She emphasized the value that SF SAFE provided to the city, despite its financial problems.

“We actually cared for the community [while] all this in the background was happening,” she said. “Now, we don't want people looking at us like this because of somebody else's wrongdoing.”

Worthy did not respond to a call and text messages seeking comment.

A hand is holding a paper with handwritten text concerning work duties and a mention of neighborhood security.
A former SF SAFE employee shows a claim form they filled out for the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, which is investigating the missing paychecks. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

SF SAFE ran out of money to pay its staff despite city records showing that the nonprofit raked in $9.4 million from the San Francisco Police Department and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development since 2018, the year Worthy became director. The city contracted with the nonprofit to host community meetings for the police, organize neighborhood watch groups and operate a security camera program. The nonprofit also secured another $1.8 million in security camera funding from Chris Larsen, the co-founder of the crypto firm Ripple, during Worthy’s tenure.

A city report concluded last month that the nonprofit misspent at least $79,000 of the police funding on expenses such as valet parking at a private club, expensive luxury gift boxes handed out at community events and rides from a limo company to Lake Tahoe for a staff-training symposium, according to a report by the Controller’s Office. Larsen has also questioned whether the nonprofit misspent as much as $1 million of the grant funding that he gave the organization to install and maintain security cameras.

While the staffers say the implosion blindsided them, they admit there were red flags.

Unlike previous directors, Worthy kept details about the nonprofit’s budget and expenditures from her staff, said Wyatt, and did not introduce them to members of the board. She also had other people on the payroll who did not work in the office and whose jobs were unclear to the core staff members.

“Everything became a secret,” Wyatt said.

Last summer, the staffers lost their health insurance for a month. Then in August, problems started with their paychecks. Instead of getting paid through direct deposit as usual, the staffers received paper checks with no pay stubs. It would be the first of many paper checks that they received in the coming months from what appeared to be different bank accounts.

Worthy told them she needed to move the money from one bank to the other because of problems with at least one of the banks, staffers said. Wyatt said he and his colleagues took her word because she was the executive director.

“She would always tell us that it's the fault of the other people,” Wyatt said. “In retrospect, what I make of it is I did not feel that she would lie to us like that. That's just wicked evil.”

The last payments some staffers received were not even on paper. In January,  three of the staffers were paid through the digital payment apps Venmo and Zelle by Worthy and the attorney who represented the nonprofit at the time.

A person holds a phone displaying a payment receipt of $3,045.74, marked complete, from someone named Dylan Hackett.
Former San Francisco SAFE staffer Starr Miles shows a receipt for a paycheck she received through Venmo from an attorney for the now-defunct nonprofit. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The staffers aren’t sure what to do next. They have contacted an attorney and are considering filing a lawsuit to get paid, one staffer said.

The problem is SF SAFE doesn't have any money.

In a Feb. 5 email, the president of the board, Dan Lawson, urged the staffers to file for unemployment and told them that, "all seven board members have directed efforts toward finding resources to pay what salary is owed to you."

"Frankly and sadly there is no money," he wrote. "That does not mean we haven't stopped searching."

Meanwhile, tensions between them and their former boss have reached a boiling point.

When the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement included her on an email thread to former SF SAFE employees last week about the missing paychecks, Worthy sent a message back to everyone that elicited a fiery response.

“I’m fine,” she wrote. “Just trying to get you guys paid since nobody else is.” 

In response, one of the former staffers, Gina Guitron, questioned why the office included Worthy on the thread and said Worthy was “the reason the staff are without a job and have not been paid.” She went on to allege that Worthy had “depleted all accounts leaving SF SAFE in the negative.” 

“Be careful what you believe, repeat and say,” Worthy replied. “Especially when you don't know the facts.”