Scathing Report On OC Homeless Shelters Finds Maggots, Rodents and Raw Sewage

A photo sent to the ACLU of Southern California shows flooding from rain at The Courtyard in Santa Ana. (Courtesy of the ACLU of Southern California)

Residents and volunteers in Orange County's homeless shelters say the facilities are often filthy, vermin-infested, and lack basics like hot water and functioning toilets, according to a new report issued by the ACLU of Southern California.

The report finds that the county's largest shelter, The Courtyard, is a regular destination for emergency personnel. Seven people have died in the shelter since it opened in 2016, a figure that doesn't include shelter residents who died either en route to or at a hospital.

The allegations of disfunction at OC shelters are laid out in the ACLU's 100-page report, which also includes examples of extreme hot and cold temperatures, rain-flooded floors, and reports of sexual harassment by shelter staff.

The ACLU report includes recommendations for improving shelter conditions and instituting a system of oversight.

"We demand the county implement them as soon as possible," said Julia Devanthery, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.

The ACLU alleges some of the conditions in the shelters may violate existing housing and health laws, as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act. The group said the report is intended to spur local officials to enact changes, but didn't rule out future litigation.

The County of Orange issued an initial statement in response to the report, saying county officials are "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."

OC officials said they will have a further response once they can fully review the report.

Appearing on KPCC's Airtalk, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido said the city is planning to close down one of the shelters, The Courtyard.

"We never wanted The Courtyard in the first place. It's an old bus terminal that has been converted to a temporary homeless shelter and that's just a disaster. The perfect gets in place of the good," he said.

However, Pulido defended the city's use of the shelter.

"The other alternative is they're all out in the streets, getting rained on and cold and hot and getting beaten up, all sorts of things can happen," he said.

'SO SUBSTANDARD, SO UNREGULATED'

The report comes as Orange County is starting to invest more public dollars in building shelters to house the county's homeless population. A federal lawsuit prevented cities in the county from ticketing or arresting homeless for living in parks or sidewalks because they could not offer an indoor alternative, like shelter. Some cities have since settled the suit by providing shelter.

"What we're seeing is many more shelters going up, and our concern is we're seeing the existing shelters so substandard, so unregulated, and frankly, so abusive, we think it's a critical time to set regulations," said Eve Garrow, homelessness policy analyst with the ACLU of Southern California .

KPCC/LAist has reached out to the shelters listed in the report, which became public Thursday morning, and will update this story when they respond.

KPCC/LAist has reported on conditions in Orange County and L.A. County shelters in the past. Officials have largely stressed the difficulty of running congregate living spaces for hundreds of people who often have complicated medical and mental health conditions. They've also denied allegations that homeless people's complaints are not taken seriously. In L.A. County, shelter operators said lack of funding and best practices also impeded their ability to run the best possible shelters.

THE ALLEGATIONS

The ACLU relied largely on interviews with and tips from dozens of people living in and volunteering in Orange County's homeless shelters. The group also used public records, like coroner reports, shelter audits, health inspections, and calls for service to emergency personnel.

"We've done over seventy interviews and the same themes kept cropping up in interview after interview with people who don't know each other, who stayed at these shelters at different points in time," Garrow said. "This kind of evidence really makes us much more confident that the themes we covered in this report are valid."

The allegations concern three shelters in Orange County that receive public funding—-The Courtyard and SAFEPlace in Santa Ana, and Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim. A sampling of the allegations made by residents of the shelters, and in some cases volunteers and staff to the ACLU of Southern California:

  • Heat and cold. On a particularly hot day in July, a shelter volunteer took a temperature reading at The Courtyard and found it was 96 degrees inside and sun was shining onto the portable toilets used as restrooms inside.
A volunteer at The Courtyard took the inside temperature on a hot day. (ACLU of Southern California)

"A volunteer reported that the odor inside the toilets was so overwhelming that he worried he would pass out if he took a breath." On a cold day in January, a resident documented the temperature inside at 54 degrees.

  • Filth. Residents report mice, bedbugs, lice, broken showers, filthy restrooms, maggots, and a lack of soap at The Courtyard.
  • Crowding. Residents complain of crowding at Bridges, with bunk beds stacked only a couple of feet apart and overused, unsanitary restrooms.
  • Mistreatment of disabled residents. According to the report, staff in the shelters are unwilling or unable to make accommodations for residents with incontinence issues, which leads to unsanitary conditions. In one alleged case, a woman with large open sores on her legs urinated and defecated in her bed because she was unable to get herself to the restroom. She was allegedly kicked out of SAFEPlace for storing soiled linens under her bed. The ACLU reported she died of complications from HIV/AIDS in July. Many residents reported trying to tend to the needs of seriously disabled fellow residents who were being neglected by staff.
  • Sexual harassment by shelter staff, "ranging from unwelcome sexual advances to sexual assault, in exchange for a shelter spot." Seventeen women told the ACLU they were subject to unwelcome sexual comments about their bodies. One resident of The Courtyard, Leslie Shacklett, said a male staff member "told her that he had a car and an apartment, and offered to take her away from the Courtyard." She declined. Late one night, she said, he followed her into the restroom and watched her on the toilet before she noticed and told him repeatedly to leave. Other residents reported seeing male staff members coming out of the women's restrooms at night.

Routinely, shelter residents told the ACLU of Southern California that their complaints were ignored. Others said they were scared to complain for fear of getting kicked out of the shelter and losing access to things like food, showers, and toilets—or being taken off the waitlist for permanent housing.

A sign posted at SAFEPlace instructs homeless people to not complain about the shelter publicly. (ACLU of Southern California)

In one case, a sign posted at SAFEPlace prohibited residents from speaking publicly about their complaints.

Residents also said they didn't know where to turn with problems once the shelters' internal grievance system was exhausted.

"None of the evidence we collected through Public Record Act requests or interviews suggested that county or city agencies were engaged in any meaningful enforcement of minimum health and safety standards," the report said.

In the meantime, Garrow said, the health and mental health of shelter residents could deteriorate, as residents wait for months and even years in shelters, with little permanent housing available.

KPCC/LAist has reached out for comment to Santa Ana's mayor, the city of Anaheim, the County Supervisors, Director of Care Coordination in Orange County and Susan Price, who oversees homeless issues. We've also contacted the organizations who run the shelters.

MOVING FORWARD

After KPCC/LAist reported on substandard conditions in L.A. County's homeless shelters, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors passed a measure requiring a set of uniform health and safety standards in shetlers, and stepped up enforcement efforts. The ACLU of Southern California is demanding similar steps in Orange County.

Specifically, they're calling on Orange County to pass uniform health and safety standards, create a clear process for overseeing the shetlers and processing complaints, get rid of policies that don't allow freedom of movement (like leaving shelters on foot, which is prohibited by most shelters), require accommodations be made for disabled residents, and processes and protections for whistleblowers.

Garrow also said the county needs to understand that homeless shelters need to be majorly improved, but also that they should be temporary destinations.

"The research shows that even the best run shelter is not appropriate place for people to live for more than a few days or weeks, a few months at the most." she said. "By its nature, it deprives people of privacy, it crowds people together, many of whom have problems of their own."

People catch more contagious diseases and their mental health deteriorates, she said, emphasizing that the county must ensure stays in shelters are short.

"And we do that by investing in affordable housing in Orange County," Garrow said.

UPDATES:

10:21 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from Orange County officials.

This article was originally published at 8 a.m.

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