As California and states across the U.S. weather another wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the nation’s most vulnerable populations stand in the eye of the storm. California is home to more than a quarter of the nation’s unhoused population, and counting. With California’s eviction moratorium set to expire on September 30th, many residents are facing imminent eviction with no feasible alternatives, as life on the streets is often safer to the dismal living conditions in homeless shelters.
The bill would usher in a new era of accountability for both the state and shelter programs, which have largely operated without state oversight or guidance. AB-362 would require each city or county to conduct inspections of shelter facilities in response to resident grievances to evaluate the living conditions. This would facilitate a cooperative partnership between government agencies and shelter management, in which both parties share the responsibility of caring for our most vulnerable populations. Additionally, this bill would authorize government housing agencies to hold shelter owners and operators directly accountable for violations by issuing citations to correct any issues that affect the livability of the shelter.
AB-362 addresses the egregious conditions inside shelters uncovered by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) back in 2019. The scathing report, titled “‘This Place is Slowly Killing Me’: Abuse and Neglect in Orange County Emergency Shelters,” details horrifically unsafe conditions including overflowing raw sewage, nonoperational showers and toilets, absent soap, and rampant pest infestations posing public health risks.
Eve Garrow, an ACLU policy analyst who co-authored the report, credited the reluctance of some individuals to return to shelters to the fear of becoming ill and the trauma inflicted on residents by staff. She recalled, “an individual I worked with ‘refused’ to go into a [shelter because they] had very realistic concerns about…the sanitation of the place…and said, ‘I won’t go there because it’s a petri dish.’”
It became clear through our conversation with Garrow that unhoused individuals often face the difficult choice between unsanitary shelters and the streets, where they risk citation for living in public. “It is often reframed by service providers as people being resistant to services,” she said, “because that absolves the service provider of any responsibility to actually meet the needs of the residents.”
Callie Rutter, founder of Stronger Women United – an organization she co-founded with Garrow and other women, aims to bring about housing justice by organizing women with lived experience in housing displacement and their allies – details her experiences as a former resident battling lung cancer in one of Orange County’s homeless shelters. “It was really humiliating to be sick,” Rutter said. “Going through chemo and radiation, I got sick in my bed and we weren’t allowed to clean up our areas. It took two weeks for staff to provide me with a trash can that I could use to be sick in during my treatment. I can’t believe I made it [through] during that time.”
For many individuals going through illness, living in a shelter is a death-sentence. “There were people dropping dead in front of me…from pneumonia and other preventable diseases.,” Rutter recalled. “One time, a [resident] passed away and staff didn’t notice for an entire day.”
As nursing students, we recognize that recurring episodes of trauma and stress can have a long-term impact on the human body—especially for people who are already highly susceptible to illness. The realities that accompany being unhoused and its health effects are a two-way relationship. Rutter noted, “the anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder I have from living in the shelter doesn’t just go away now that I’m housed.”
Having worked with this population, we have witnessed the varied struggles that unhoused individuals face – making it clear that introducing legislation to address both the quantity and quality of these shelters matters. AB-362 is certainly a step in the right direction for our unhoused neighbors, friends, and family members who often weather it alone due to stigma – because no one ever thinks they will end up unhoused. Voice your support by contacting your state senator and the Governor to vote yes on AB-362 today.
Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the views, opinions, or policies endorsed by the University of California, Irvine.
Rubi Gomez and Shannon M. Kitchell are currently obtaining their master’s in Nursing with a concentration in Community and Population Health at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). Rubi is a Los Angeles resident and has special interests in maternal health, empowering vulnerable populations, and health education. Shannon is an Irvine resident with a passion for field wound care, geriatrics, and women’s health.
Contributing Authors: Karimat A. Adebiyi, Dayssy A. Nuñez, and Jessica M. Osorio are all master’s entry-level Nursing students specializing in Community and Population Health at the University of California, Irvine.
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