Fired Worker Blasts California Homeless Center

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — A fired employee claims in court that a 59-year-old Orange County nonprofit’s center for helping mentally ill homeless people is plagued by rats, mold and dangerous wiring and makes its workers bring their own toilet paper and cleaning supplies.

Norma Garcia alleges the Orange County Association of Mental Health fired her last June from her job as a thrift store cashier after she complained to the county’s health department about conditions at the organization’s homeless multi-service center in Santa Ana.

In her June 9 wrongful termination lawsuit against the association, Garcia also says that people needing the center’s help to receive and distribute their Social Security benefits frequently complained that the center hadn’t paid their rents or given them needed funds.

“These people were treated in an abusive and inhumane manner, often being threatened, yelled at and told to leave,” she says.

Further, according to the Orange County Superior Court complaint, material donations given to the Santa Ana center “were removed from facility and/or not arrived from donors.”

Garcia blames some of those problems on her immediate supervisor, Darlene Powell, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, as is association CEO Jeffrey A. Thrash.

“In one specific instance, most of a large donation of household items disappeared between pick up from donor and delivery to [the Mental Health Association]. The pickup driver was identified as Darlene Powell’s boyfriend and another person only identified as a court-ordered volunteer,” her lawsuit says. “When plaintiff and other volunteers asked about those items, plaintiff was told by Darlene Powell to ‘Get rid of those volunteers asking about the missing product.’”

Thrash did not respond to an email asking about the lawsuit. Nor did the president of the association’s board of directors, Margaret Riley.

Garcia’s lead attorney, Michael F. Long of Alston, Alston & Diebold, was in trial and could not be reached, according to partner Donald A. Diebold.

The association, which does business as the Mental Health Association of Orange County, provides mental health outpatient, recovery and other services from five locations around the county, according to its website.

Services for the homeless include housing, job assistance and support for veterans, the website says.

Incorporated in 1958, the association has a budget of about $8.5 million, which includes several contracts from the county government. It has a staff of 120, about a third of them being “consumers of mental health services” themselves.

Garcia’s lawsuit notes that she herself was “vulnerable from a health and psychological standpoint” to her alleged mistreatment “because she is dyslexic and has severe psychological problems.”

Karen B. Williams, the president of Orange County’s 211 referral and information service, said she has not heard of problems at the mental health association’s Santa Ana homeless facility.

“They provide a service that’s needed in the community,” Williams said in a brief phone interview. “They’re one of the few offering those kinds of services.”

In her 12-page lawsuit, however, Garcia claims the tables and floor in the Santa Ana facility’s dining area, where clients receive breakfast and a hot lunch, are covered with rat feces.

“Rodents were found within the facility on a daily basis and defendant Powell cancelled the pest control service for the Thrift Store portion approximately 3 years ago,” she says.

The facility’s back rooms, for storage and sorting of supplies, have no ventilation, Garcia says. Rather, there are mites, mold and “garbage and other combustibles … piled 9 feet high with no provisions in case of fire,” the complaint states.

Florescent lights don’t work, electrical outlets and junction boxes are shorted out, the roof leaks in the rain and the heating and air conditioning system doesn’t function in the back rooms where staff and volunteers work, Garcia adds.

Finally, Garcia alleges that the facility’s bathrooms and common areas are “unsanitary and a health risk.”

The association “does not provide toilet paper or other personal hygiene items to volunteers or workers,” she says. “Volunteers have to provide their own toilet paper and hand soap for restroom facilities. … Additionally, volunteers are forced to provide their own supplies to clean the facility!”

Garcia seeks punitive damages and attorney’s fees for claims of wrongful termination, failure to pay wages, emotional distress and retaliation.

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