Anaheim Opened A Homeless Shelter So Fast That People Aren't Sure If It's a Feat Or A Failure

Anaheim's new $1.4 million temporary homeless shelter, right before it opened in December. (Emily Elena Dugdale/ LAist)

The City of Anaheim opened a new homeless shelter in December and depending on who you ask, the site is either a shining example of a city's compassionate response to homelessness — or a cautionary tale for cities looking to clear their sidewalks quickly.

THE RIVER TRAIL TIPPING POINT

Orange County, like pretty much all of the West Coast, has seen an uptick in homeless encampments in recent years.

Every area has reached its own flashpoint on the issue and responded to it a bit differently. In Orange County, it was the Santa Ana River Trail, where in 2017, authorities from various cities and the county decided to start evicting an encampment that had grown to some 400 tents.

Local businesses complained of an uptick in petty thefts. And neighbors were worried about the encampment—the Santa Ana River Trail and riverbed were strewn with trash and excrement, byproducts of masses of people living outdoors with no facilities.

Advocates for homeless protested — arguing that Orange County's homeless had essentially been forced into the riverbed by cities that didn't want them in their parks and by a lack of shelters that could accommodate them.

In early 2017, Orange County had 1,123 shelter beds and about 4,800 estimated people experiencing homelessness on any given night.

A mass eviction from the riverbed, they said, would push homeless people into parks and city streets, where law enforcement would immediately start ticketing them for sleeping outdoors. So they filed a federal lawsuit.

Larry Ford, a homeless man who once lived in Huntington Beach, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

"I'm very respectful of law enforcement and the powers that they have and the position that they're in," he told KPCC in January 2018. "But at the same time, I got a right to be somewhere."

Federal Judge David O. Carter ordered cities to quit their enforcement measures until some sort of agreement could be reached. Kerfuffles ensued over where homeless shelters would be placed. Homeless encampments started appearing in parks, like Maxwell Park in Anaheim.

Now, over a year later, some cities, including Anaheim have settled their part in the lawsuit. The gist of the settlements is that cities, if they want to clear people from sidewalks and parks and other public lands, must provide adequate shelter space.

Anaheim is working on medium and long-term shelter options. But in the meantime, they scrambled to put a temporary one together and after just weeks of planning and construction, opened a short-term shelter inside a warehouse next to Angel Stadium.

INSIDE THE TEMPORARY SHELTER: 200 BEDS AND SOMETIMES, SEWAGE

The 200-bed shelter, called Anaheim Way sits in what was once an electronics warehouse. It's divided into areas for men, women and couples, and further split into cubicles of four beds each to afford some privacy to residents. There's a kitchen that serves hot meals, a common area with a television and a dog run outside that doubles as a smoking area.

Some shelter residents say they stood on a chair to avoid pooled water on the shower floors. (Courtesy of the ACLU of Southern California)

All that's pretty nice, residents say. Less so, the bathrooms.

To provide toilets and showers for residents, the shelter operator, The Illumination Foundation, wheeled in trailers with mobile bathrooms and showers—the type you might find at a construction site.

Pretty quickly, residents say, they backed up.

"It gets clogged up from time to time and it takes them two to three days to get it all cleaned up," said Stephen Mosley, who's been living in the shelter since the sweep at Maxwell Park in December. "It smells like an outhouse, for days, until they clean it up."

Since there are no walls, the smell of spilling sewage, residents say, seeps into the living spaces as well.

Donald Simms, who's 66 and has been homeless in Orange County for decades, is staying in the shelter.

"The porta-potty concept is junk," he said.

Staff is trying their best to keep things running smoothly, he said, and much of the shelter is nice.

"They're just overwhelmed."

Orange County's Department of Environmental Health received two complaints about plumbing in the shelter in January.

The first, dated January 5, alleged a sewage spill and no hot water. An inspector visited and instructed staff to close the restroom until the leak was repaired.

Some residents say the bathrooms can get very dirty. Anaheim says they're cleaned regularly. (Courtesy of the ACLU of Southern California)

The second, dated January 29, alleged a sewage overflow.

"Water was observed dripping from underneath the farthest east shower and toilet facilities," according to the health inspector's report, which again instructed the toilet be shut down until it could be repaired.

Mike Lyster, spokesman for the City of Anaheim, said the city and shelter operator are aware of and have been extremely responsive to the plumbing issues. Staff has mopped up overflows and they brought in outdoor port-a-potties for when the toilets back up.

Eve Garrow, homeless policy analyst with the ACLU of Southern California, however, said the situation is unacceptable. She has received numerous complaints from residents about sewage, unsanitary conditions, and smells.

"When you have raw sewage seeping into common areas, that speaks to really exposing people who are already quite vulnerable to a health and safety hazard rather than helping them," she said.

Anaheim Way, she said, is a cautionary tale for other Orange County cities looking to erect shelters quickly.

"There's not enough planning or resources to really meet the needs of this very vulnerable population," she said.

Residents, she said, can't really vote with their feet and opt to leave—as they could face citations if they go back to sleeping outdoors.

Lyster, however, said there was real urgency to opening the shelter.

"The situation we had on our streets," he said. "And we've had temperatures in the 30's at night, heavy rain. Nobody should have to live outdoors in a situation like that."

THERE'S NO ONE IN CHARGE OF STANDARDS

Homeless shelters, even the ones that are publicly funded, are relatively unregulated in California. No one agency has responsibility for ensuring they are well run and comply with basic health and safety standards.

Lyster said he has personally investigated complaints about the shelter when they reach him and the shelter's staff are also open to hearing about and fixing problems.

"We as the city are the responsible party," he said. As the place went up "I was here the whole time," he said. The fire marshall, building inspectors, and health department were all involved. As was the federal court overseeing Anaheim's pending settlement.

But as more shelters go up in Anaheim and elsewhere, it's unclear what they're expected to look like.

"Orange County doesn't have a set of uniform standards much less a system of monitoring emergency shelters and bringing them into compliance with standards," Garrow said. "It's an incredibly unregulated system."

L.A. County recently passed an ordinance requiring a uniform set of standards for shelters in Los Angeles, following a KPCC investigation that found many shelters had bed bugs, rats, and safety issues.

WHEN ANAHEIM WAY CLOSES

Anaheim opened a second new homeless shelter in late January and has another slated for a February opening. They're expected to remain operational as the city works towards a more permanent site. Anaheim Way is expected to close down in March, when the other shelters are fully operational.

"We think in a couple years time, we're going to have enough in place where you're never going to solve it, there are always going to be homeless people," Lyster said. "But we think we will have enough in place where we will have made great strides in providing what we need to do to ensure those who need and want help have it and also ensure that public spaces are available for what they were intended for."

Correction: A previous version of this story reported Anaheim was near signing a final settlement in the Catholic Workers lawsuit. The city has settled. LAist regrets the error.