BENICIA – The Benicia City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to proceed with a plan to sell city-owned property to the nonprofit SafeQuest Solano to open new transitional housing for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, despite recent allegations that SafeQuest has misused public resources.
The council’s vote followed an emotional public hearing where proponents of the organization read statements from survivors who had been assisted by SafeQuest and one woman gave an account of leaving an abusive marriage and staying with her children in a safe house operated by SafeQuest for three weeks.
But members of the city council sidestepped allegations made by former employees that SafeQuest’s shelters went largely unused for months and that an attorney for the organization lived in a shelter rented from the city of Fairfield for $1 per year. The allegations, reported by the Vallejo Sun in June, have spurred calls for an investigation and led to eroding support for the organization.
Each councilmember reported during the meeting that they met with SafeQuest executive director Mary Anne Branch privately to address concerns. But the councilmembers did not ask for a public explanation. Branch and SafeQuest have declined to answer questions from the Vallejo Sun, both before and after publication of the June investigation.
BENICIA – The Benicia City Council will consider at its meeting Tuesday whether to sell or lease two city-owned buildings to be used as shelters by SafeQuest Solano, a nonprofit that provides domestic violence support services.
A proposed resolution on Tuesday’s Benicia City Council agenda does not say how much the city would charge SafeQuest to purchase or lease the property, which totals about 3,100 square feet across both buildings. Another nonprofit, House of Hope, which focuses mainly on rehabilitation facilities, would help operate the shelter, according to the resolution.
SafeQuest has faced eroding support and calls for an investigation into its practices after a Vallejo Sun investigation published in June reported that former employees said that its existing shelters were sparsely used and SafeQuest allowed an attorney for the organization to live at a shelter rented from the city of Fairfield for $1 per year.
Benicia City Manager Mario Giuliani and community development director Suzanne Thorsen did not respond to a request for comment. SafeQuest Executive Director Mary Anne Branch did not respond to written questions.
The contract with Benicia would come as the city of Fairfield considers cutting ties with SafeQuest. Following the publication of the Sun article, Fairfield issued a request for proposals to find a new operator for its shelter.
However, only SafeQuest submitted a proposal, according to Fairfield Mayor Catherine Moy. SafeQuest has sought a long-term extension of their lease since last year, but amid questions about how the property was being used, has remained on a month-to-month lease.
Moy said that she has no plans to bring a new lease for a vote by the City Council and that Fairfield City Manager David Gassaway “continues to be uncomfortable with extending the contract.”
According to Moy, Branch met with Fairfield city officials to dispute the Sun’s reporting on its shelters. SafeQuest has declined to answer any questions from the Sun and has not sought any corrections to the articles.
Cassandra Chanhsy, an advocate who worked for the nonprofit SafeQuest Solano, was doing yardwork outside a Fairfield safe house for victims of domestic violence and rape in early 2021, when she was surprised to see a man walk out. Not only was it unusual to see a man at the safe house, she thought it was empty, as it had been shut down for months. Chanhsy recognized the man as Richard Bruce Paschal Jr., SafeQuest’s business officer, who typically went by his middle name.
“And I’m like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Chanhsy recalled.
“I live here,” he told her.
SafeQuest — which has provided services for victims of domestic violence in Solano County for nearly 40 years — rents the house from the city of Fairfield for $1 per year, according to the city’s contract with the organization. But Chanhsy said she hadn’t worked in the shelter since late 2019, when the organization closed it. Her manager told her and the residents that the shelter was closing because of a plumbing issue, Chanhsy recalled in an interview.
When the Fairfield house closed, Chanhsy and the roughly 10 people who were staying there went to a different safe house in Vallejo. But she occasionally returned to Fairfield as a volunteer when the grass was overgrown or leaves needed raking.
It’s unclear how long Paschal lived at the Fairfield safe house, but three other former SafeQuest employees said they were aware that Paschal lived there. One former employee who requested to remain anonymous said that SafeQuest executive director Mary Anne Branch told her that Paschal was living in the house as part of his compensation. In a brief phone interview, Paschal declined to say whether he ever lived in the house.
An anonymous complaint that was emailed to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in May 2022 that the Sun obtained states that he lived there from sometime in the summer of 2020 until March 2021. “No victims were taken in instead,” it states.
Meanwhile, Chanhsy and another victim advocate said the Vallejo shelter was largely empty. One advocate who worked there for a month before she resigned provided documentation that SafeQuest turned away 10 women in that time, saying there was no room when plenty of beds were available.
When operational, the Fairfield house had a capacity of 12 people per night, according to records submitted to the city of Fairfield. An advocate who worked in the Vallejo house said that its capacity was similar. But employees like Chanhsy said those beds sat empty while they worked alone in Vallejo with nothing to do. The organization received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and state grant funding, yet a log of late payments obtained by the Sun shows that many employees weren’t paid on time. The records show that the organization at times owed thousands of dollars in back pay and penalties.
The lack of services draws into question a bedrock service for Solano County that governments throughout the county rely on to protect victims of violent crime. SafeQuest has operational agreements to provide advocacy for victims of sexual assault and other services with nearly every police agency in Solano County, the Solano County District Attorney’s Office and Solano County Superior Court.
Millions in funding, few services
Former employees, including Chanhsy, said that the shelters in Fairfield and Vallejo were mostly empty for two years starting in late 2019. Records the organization submitted to the city of Fairfield showed that the safe house there was used very little in 2020 and 2021, even as the city had effectively donated it to the organization for that purpose.
But SafeQuest’s services were particularly necessary in those years as the COVID-19 pandemic drove an increase in domestic violence incidents around the world. A 2021 United Nations report found there was a global “shadow pandemic” of violence against women following stay-at-home-orders. A study by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported a spike in domestic violence-related calls to police immediately following lockdown measures in the United States.
According to SafeQuest, there was a 9% increase in instances of domestic violence in Solano County during the first two months of the pandemic. “Meanwhile, shelters, childcare centers, and rape crisis centers are overwhelmed and understaffed,” a 2020 grant application by SafeQuest stated.
The kinds of services SafeQuest is supposed to offer — in particular, emergency housing for people escaping domestic violence and transition services — can also help to prevent homelessness as the region struggles with a crippling shortage of affordable housing.
The entire Bay Area has returned to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s orange “substantial” and red “high” categories of coronavirus transmission — a step backward for some counties, like Marin and San Francisco, where transmission was previously classified as yellow, or “moderate.”
This comes after Marin County lifted its indoor mask mandate on Monday after reaching key COVID-19 benchmarks agreed upon by eight Bay Area counties. However, the mandate is unlikely to be immediately reinstated; the county’s health officer Matt Willis said last week that an increase in cases alone will not determine whether masks come back; rather he will watch hospitalization numbers, which as of Friday were at a four-month low.