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ACLU Lawsuit Alleges Sexual Harassment And Unsafe Conditions At Emergency Homeless Shelters in OC

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A photo sent to the ACLU of Southern California shows flooding from rain at The Courtyard in Santa Ana. (Courtesy ACLU of Southern California)
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The ACLU Foundation of Southern California is suing Orange County, the city of Anaheim and several homeless non-profits over 'horrific' conditions at three emergency homeless shelters.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Orange County Superior Court on behalf of several unhoused people who've resided at The Courtyard shelter in Santa Ana, Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim, and La Mesa shelter, also in Anaheim.

The list of allegations -- which includes unsanitary living conditions, coercive policies and abuse by shelter employees -- paints a bleak picture of life inside these facilities, mostly hidden from public view.

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One plaintiff, Cyndi Utzman has lived at all three shelters. At Bridges and La Mesa, she says she was subject to sexually invasive searches as well as coercive lock-in policies that prevented her from maintaining employment.

"I've been basically in prison for three years," Utzman said. "It was illegal for them to touch me the way they touched me. And they did it repeatedly, several times per day."

At The Courtyard, Utzman says the biggest problem was the filthy conditions, including a lack of available showers and sinks.

"It seemed like a third-world country kind of situation," Utzman said. "The conditions there were so awful you can't even believe it without seeing it."

Another plaintiff, Deborah Kraft, stayed at The Courtyard in 2016 after leaving a violent partner.

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"The sexual harassment at the Courtyard was so bad that sometimes I wondered if it would have been better to stay in the abusive relationship I fled," Kraft said in a press release announcing the lawsuit.

ALLEGATIONS OF INHUMANE CONDITIONS

The ACLU of Southern California published allegations of inhumane conditions at the facilities last year, along with policy recommendations. That report focused on The Courtyard and Bridges at Kraemer Place, both funded by Orange County.

Eve Garrow, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU of Southern California, said county officials failed to act on the report's findings.

"There was resistance, and very little, if any, progress has been made," Garrow said.

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La Mesa, funded by the city of Anaheim, is a newer shelter opened in response to a 2018 federal court settlement over a lawsuit known as Catholic Worker v. Orange County alleging unhoused people couldn't be arrested for sleeping outside when there were not enough available shelter beds.

The ACLU lawsuit names the city of Anaheim, which provides funding for La Mesa, and Orange County, which funds the other two shelters. It also names the nonprofits that operate the facilities: Midnight Mission, Mercy House Living Centers, and Illumination Foundation.

Garrow hopes the lawsuit lifts the veil on conditions inside emergency homeless shelters and results in much-needed changes at the facilities.

"People are forced and coerced to be in these shelters," she said. "Nobody should have to give up their human and civil rights in order to have a roof over their head at nighttime."

Orange County officials and the nonprofits involved declined to comment on the lawsuit.

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The city of Anaheim said it's reviewing the allegations.

"We are proud of our work to open shelters and for the role they have played helping people out of homelessness," said Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster.

"Resident well-being and dignity are always a priority, and we hold our operators to high standards with a process for concerns to be heard and addressed."

The complaint lays out more than a dozen specific allegations of misconduct, including negligence, sexual battery, retaliation, sex-based harassment, and due process violations.

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