The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California released a report last week documenting extreme sexual and physical abuse, neglect, and inhumane living conditions in three temporary shelters that serve the homeless population in Orange County.
The report, written by ACLU attorneys Eve Garrow and Julia Devanthéry and titled “This Place is Slowly Killing Me, Abuse and Neglect in Orange County Emergency Shelters,” is based on over 70 personal accounts from staff members, residents, and shelter volunteers from The Courtyard and SAFEPlace in Santa Ana, and Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim.
The conditions in these shelters are explained in the executive summary of the report as “horrendously unsanitary and unsafe conditions.” Residents of these temporary shelters include the mentally ill, the disabled, and the elderly. “Interviews reveal a pattern of discrimination based on disability, gender and race; elder neglect; sexual, physical, and verbal abuse; deprivation of basic rights; and arbitrary abuses of power inside the shelters. Conditions at these shelters are not just inhumane, they are against the law,” the report said.
The first-person visits were the basis for the findings of the report, which included interviews with staff members, residents and volunteers. In all three facilities, they found “unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, discrimination and abuse, suppression of freedom of expression, deprivation of fundamental rights without due process, and impunity and lack of accountability.”
The conditions in the shelters were documented as having black mold, no hot water, soap or cleaning products. Residents were exposed to airborne illnesses and infections such as tuberculosis, rain, rodent and maggot infestations, insects, and open sewage. This created a breeding ground for disease, and because of overcrowding exposes the residents to scabies, lice, and bedbugs, according to the report.
“Shortly after The Courtyard opened in 2016, it didn’t take long before I started hearing horror stories from people living there about abuse from the staff. When two other temporary shelters opened, I started to realize there was a theme in Orange County that the shelters were unregulated and had dangerously substandard conditions, and that staff retaliated against residents who came forward.” Garrow said.
“About a year ago, I decided I needed to launch an investigation and bring these conditions to light,” Garrow said. “One staff member agreed to speak with me, but because grievances and complaints stay within the shelter, there is no outside entity to help because of fear of retaliation.” The report reveals testimony from residents within the three shelters that showed that illness was rampant and death was common. At The Courtyard, either from lack of care or inadequate care, there was an average of 20 emergency calls per week from within the shelter, or about every eight hours, with seven reported deaths at the shelter and an unknown amount of deaths at the hospital after transport.
Communicable diseases are a certainty in a closed environment. This makes an already vulnerable population at risk for disease, infection, violence, death, and even more susceptible to physical, mental, and sexual abuse by staff members. Theft is rampant at homeless shelters. Residents do not have a reliable way to store blankets, warm clothes, or their own personal belongings, since storage options are inadequate or non-existent.
Extreme weather conditions, and lack of heating and cooling increases ambulance calls and emergency room visits and worsens any pre-existing medical conditions. The report also details a single air conditioned room at The Courtyard reserved only for staff members, during a breaking heat wave in 2018, where the sick, elderly and disabled suffered in the sweltering above 100 degree temperatures.
In all three of the shelters, showers were broken and rarely fixed. Raw sewage is tracked through facilities due to broken port-a-potties, and flooding from storms soaks the residents cots and blankets. Black mold grows in the bathrooms. Human feces and raw sewage cover the outside of non-flushing toilets, that overflow frequently. Residents complain of the stench and flies. There are only a few toilets and showers that are designated for women and those were broken or closed completely. The shelters lack basic first aid supplies.
SAFEPlace in Santa Ana is kept at a constant 61 degrees and residents have to wear multiple jackets (if they have any,) at one time in order to escape the cold. At SAFEPlace, there is only one toilet for every seventeen people, and three stalls with child sized toilets, making it difficult for residents with disabilities to stoop down. (SAFEPlace is located in an old gymnasium.) Residents also complain about recurring bedbug infestations, the report said.
Basic medical care is withheld from residents from all three shelters, according to the ACLU report, but people with disabilities, injuries, the sick, the elderly and women are at an even greater disadvantage. While some shelters do transition residents out to higher levels of care, severe neglect and abuse was routinely found across the spectrum within the shelters, even when obvious or life-threatening medical conditions could be observed. This leaves care-taking roles to the residents themselves- and assuming such responsibilities as feeding other residents and offering water and basic medical supplies from their own resources.
Residents at the Bridges at Kraemer Place report that there has been blood and feces smeared in the bathrooms, and that insects, bedbug and lice infestations are common. Residents have also reported that staff members discriminate and abuse those who are ill and physically cannot follow the rules of the shelter. The staff retaliates when residents try to help one another.
“Staff and administration have too much unchecked power over this vulnerable population, and that type of power corrupts,” Garrow said.
The report goes on to state that violence from staff members towards residents is rampant. Incidences of rape is exponentially higher if you are a homeless woman, and even higher still if you are transgender/non-binary. While shelters are supposed to offer a safe reprieve from the streets, they are often just as, if not more, dangerous. This harassment includes a myriad of sexual abuse from staff members in exchange for a bed in the shelter. This abuse of power by male staff members includes security personnel and administration. A former resident of The Courtyard stated that “Especially if you are pretty, you get targeted.”
A staff member who had been fired for sexual misconduct at Bridges at Kraemer Place has been reported as being on staff at The Link, another emergency shelter in Orange County.
“This highlights the lack of an effective system set in place to combat abuse,” Garrow said.
“Some of the ACLU recommendations are doable right now. It would not take the Board of Supervisors very long to pass an ordinance to ensure that staff members are held accountable. They [the Board of Supervisors] have a hefty general fund of almost 800 million dollars to use, but have chosen not to use it on permanent housing,” Garrow argued. “Every time you have a situation where you have a gatekeeper of resources for survival, you are going to get abuse because workers have too much power.”