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Homeless people living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions at County-run shelters face abusive staff misconduct and retaliation for speaking up about the issues, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report.
“Emergency shelters tend to have these types of problems. They tend to be unsanitary, they tend to be subject to different forms of staff misconduct. But, I have to say, that I have never seen anything as egregious as I’ve seen in these shelters in Orange County,” said ACLU policy analyst Eve Garrow, who authored the report released Thursday.
The ACLU effort, compiled over the past year, analyzed three County-run shelters: the Courtyard homeless shelter at an abandoned bus terminal in Downtown Santa Ana; Bridges at Kraemer Place shelter in Anaheim, next to the 91 freeway, near the corner of Glassell Street and La Palma Avenue; and SAFEPlace, a women’s shelter in Downtown Santa Ana.
“Let’s take the Courtyard for example, an open-air bus terminal that’s not meant for habitation — with no temperature controls — leaving people in freezing conditions in the winter time and the dangerously hot conditions in the summertime … flooding problems with portable toilets, contamination by raw sewage,” Garrow said.
The County is reviewing the report, according to a statement provided by spokeswoman Molly Nichelson
“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. We work to ensure valid complaints are addressed by our service providers in a timely fashion. We will take the time to review the report and will respond to it accordingly,” reads Nichelson’s email.
The ACLU report also alleges homeless people are retaliated against by shelter staff when they speak up about the conditions. At the Courtyard, which has a maximum capacity of about 425 people, people who voice concerns are often kicked out, according to the report.
“They’ll roll you up for anything. Questioning a staff or disagreeing with an order, having food next to your bed, laying down during the day,” recalls former resident David Adams in the report.
The ACLU report also has an undated picture of a sign from SAFEplace that lays out its complaint policies to residents.
“Guests who have an issue with a staff member must use the SAFEPlace grievance process. If the guest does not choose to use this process and grievances are made public or constant [an] exit date will be assigned. SAFEPlace needs to be a supportive environment for Staff and Guests,” reads the sign allegedly posted at the women’s shelter.
Garrow said the threat of eviction is a common at shelters.
“What we find is shelters use eviction and threat of eviction as a way to discipline and manage these large populations of residents,” she said. “And the threat of eviction both silences residents who would speak out about the inhumane conditions … speaking out often results in retaliation by staff and eviction from the shelter.”
The report comes as the County and five South County cities are ordered to appear in federal court in less than three weeks. U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, who’s overseeing lawsuits against the County and the South County Cities, also requested city managers, mayors and police chiefs from all 34 OC cities to appear at the April 2 court hearing.
The lawsuits, filed by attorneys Brooke Weitzman and Carol Sobel, focus on the shelter bed shortages and police enforcement of anti-camping laws, which contribute to criminalizing the homeless, the lawyers contend. The original lawsuit was filed January 2018 for the eviction of roughly 1,000 homeless people from the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless camp. People from the riverbed hit the streets and soon found citations and arrests awaited them for camping and loitering because they had nowhere to go.
Weitzman and Sobel filed a similar lawsuit Feb. 27 against Irvine, Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.
Sobel said Carter has been aware of the shelter issues for months.
“Other than the fact that it has a lot more pictures, everything in the report is already before the court in our cases,” Sobel said, adding the conditions are “The consequences of moving so many people so quickly out of the riverbed.”
Sexual harassment has also taken place at SAFEPlace, alleges the ACLU report.
“At SAFEPlace, we talked with four women who report surveillance by male security guards, which they experience as a form of sexual harassment and a violation of their privacy,” reads the report.
Sobel said Carter visited the women’s shelter a couple months ago and stopped the sexual harassment.
“Judge Carter recently went to SAFEPlace because Brooke (Weitzman) brought him there to hear the complaints from women about the security and the judge said he wasn’t going to allow that and they changed the staffing since then,” Sobel said.
Like the Courtyard and SAFEPlace, similar unsanitary conditions were found at the Kraemer shelter, according to the report.
“…trash, bodily fluids, and feces build up in the restrooms between cleanings, creating a health and safety hazard,” reads the report.
The ACLU report also found a high number of emergency calls to the Orange County Fire Authority at the Courtyard shelter.
From July 1, 2017 to Oct. 31, 2017, there were 313 calls for emergency services — including 85 for a “ill person/unknown problem,” 54 calls for respiratory problems and 32 chest pain/cardiac problems.
The report also details the lack of basic first aid and medical care at the shelters.
CalOptima, the county’s insurance plan for the poor, is creating medical teams that will treat homeless people on the streets after a unanimous vote by the agency’s board of directors at the Feb. 22 emergency meeting. The meeting was largely spurred after Carter met with some CalOptima directors and top executives. The agency is also looking to set up medical stations at the larger shelters, like the Courtyard.
“Obviously, bringing medical attention and other services that people need to the Courtyard and to all of these other shelters is incredibly important. I also feel that we need a system of oversight — we need more oversight of these shelters. At the moment, they’re unregulated,” Garrow said. “We need standards and a mechanism to hold shelters and staff — and medical professionals — accountable to those standards.”
Coroner data shows the number of homeless deaths in Orange County skyrocketed, from 53 deaths in 2005 to 164 deaths in 2015, to more than 250 deaths in 2018 – a fourfold increase. Carter called the homeless situation a “public health crisis in the County leading to the deaths of hundreds of homelessness,” in a Feb. 19 court filing requesting the OC Sheriff’s Department provide homeless people’s causes of death for 2018 and 2019.
Unofficial numbers from the January Point in Time Count, federally mandated biennial homeless headcount, show at least 3,400 homeless people are living on the streets of Orange County. A Voice of OC analysis found roughly 1,300 homeless people are sleeping in shelters, although some of those people may have been included in both counts. Official numbers are expected to be released in April.
“Here’s what my concern is right now: is that we are opening these new facilities, but quite frankly, I think that local governments and the County has underestimated the number of people they have to address,” Sobel said.
Sobel said while the report isn’t bringing forward issues that the court isn’t aware of, it’s good to have the problems laid out.
“I think it’s always good to have this stuff reinforced, but I don’t think it’s anything new. We’re dealing with a crisis in Orange County. The local governments, the County, moved over 1000 people (from the Santa Ana Riverbed homeless camp) … and they’re still struggling to figure out how to absorb that,” Sobel said.