LOS ANGELES (CN) - A year-long investigation into conditions at three homeless shelters in Orange County uncovered rampant sexual harassment, age, race and gender-related abuse, and rodent-infested facilities that lacked heat on cold nights and flooded during storms, according to a report released Thursday.
Through interviews with more than 70 homeless residents, shelter staff and volunteers at Courtyard Transitional Center and SAFEPlace in Santa Ana, and Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California uncovered toxic, unsafe living conditions.
The report, titled "This Place is Slowly Killing Me: Abuse and Neglect in Orange County Emergency Shelters," found arbitrary destruction and seizure of residents’ property without due process, neglect of elderly residents to the point that their needs became medical emergencies and staff who went unpunished for retaliating against residents who issued complaints.
The findings contrast with the county’s recent attempts to tackle its widespread homelessness and housing affordability crisis by placing homeless residents into new shelters and expanding health services.
Settlement talks from a recent lawsuit seeking to prevent cities from issuing citations to the homeless without first offering shelter and permanent housing resulted in new shelters opening – such as the Link in Santa Ana – or being slated to open soon in other cities.
But the 101-page report said more work is needed to hold shelter staff accountable and to ensure humane treatment of residents.
"Orange County's emergency shelters are dangerously unregulated and downright abusive," ACLU policy analyst Eve Garrow said. “The need for reform becomes increasingly urgent as more shelters are added to the system."
Shelter residents - including Roberta Filicko, who stayed at Courtyard and whose handwritten notes are included in the audit - reported a lack of soap and cleaning products, black mold in bathrooms, long wait times for meals and harassment by staff members who often rolled people up in their beds and tossed them out of the shelters if they stayed past closing time.
“People who have been to jail have said jail is better than this shelter,” said Filicko, adding that she became homeless after losing both her husband and her home. “We are so scared that we will be living on the streets, and the staff make sure to remind you of this every minute of every day. It’s true we have no one to help us, so we go along with it.”
Male shelter staff reportedly targeted women residents for demeaning comments about their appearance and offers to exchange special treatment for sex, the report said. These experiences betrayed the “measure of hope” that the shelters provided to homeless residents leaving the streets, according to the report.
Spokespersons for the shelters did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.
Molly Nichelson, a spokesperson for the county, said in a statement Thursday that officials will review the report and address the complaints with shelter operators.
“The County of Orange is committed to ensuring our emergency shelters are safe for all our clients. Each emergency shelter has its own provider and complaint process,” the statement said. “We work to ensure valid complaints are addressed by our service providers in a timely fashion.”
The ACLU said it has requested an independent audit of shelter conditions by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the California Department of Housing and Community Development and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which also received copies of the report.
In February, homeless residents filed a class action lawsuit against cities in the southern part of the county – Irvine, Dana Point, Aliso Viejo, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente – claiming the cities violated their rights by issuing citations and confiscating their property without giving them a chance to access shelter – even though a September 2018 ruling from the Ninth Circuit found that homeless residents could not be cited for sleeping on the street if no shelter was available to them. That case dealt with Boise, Idaho, shelters, but the ruling extended to California cities.
The only low-barrier shelter in southern Orange County – where, according to the lawsuit, over 400 people are sleeping on the street – is a 45-bed facility in Laguna Beach.
The sidestepping of the responsibility to offer shelter has had fatal consequences for the homeless, who face threats of heat stroke in the summer and frostbite and hypothermia in the winter, the complaint said.
A Feb. 25 report by the county coroner found that at least 250 homeless people died in 2018, up from 164 in 2015, and that 25 homeless people have died this year, as of Feb. 19.
Attorneys for the advocacy organizations who are party to the class action lawsuit filed one of two similar complaints against the county last year to prevent closure of an encampment on the Santa Ana riverbed.
The lawsuits, overseen by U.S. District Judge David Carter, halted the removal of homeless people living on the riverbed and pushed the county to pay to house almost 700 people in nearby motels.
Carol Sobel, an attorney for the informal class of homeless residents in the pending cases, said in an interview Thursday that advocates for the homeless are aware of the issues raised in the ACLU report, which are largely being addressed because of their legal action.
Sobel said attorneys and county officials have mandated changes to shelter policies on due process, harassment and property seizure.
“Remedies are in process,” Sobel said.
Advocates continue to push the county to fund construction of permanent housing that includes health services for residents as a long-term solution to homelessness, Sobel said. In the meantime, shelters are necessary.
“We recognize that we placed demands that were beyond the capacity of facilities. But we did it because we didn’t want people dying on the street,” Sobel said. “The number of [homeless deaths] goes up every year and if you ask anyone they would say they prefer shelters over dying on the street or going to jail.”
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