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March 14, 2019

Report Finds Widespread Neglect and Abuse in Anaheim and Santa Ana Shelters

SANTA ANA — Orange County, in the midst of a dire homelessness crises, opened emergency shelters, giving hope to those who were living in punishing conditions on the streets. 

But what once was a symbol of hope has become a nightmare for many residents.

A year-long investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California uncovered toxic and unsafe conditions inside three shelters, including too few toilets for the number of residents and broken toilets that went unrepaired for months; raw sewage flowing from porta potties; showers with no temperature control if they work at all; infestations of rodents, maggots, and other insects; an acute shortage of soap and cleaning products; a lack of heat on cold winter nights; and flooding during rainstorms.  

Women residents were targets of sexual harassment by male staff members, including incessant, demeaning comments about their bodies and appearance, voyeurism while using bathroom facilities, and offers of special treatment in exchange for sex.

Today, the ACLU SoCal released a comprehensive report, "'This Place is Slowly Killing Me:' Abuse and Neglect in Orange County Emergency Shelters," compiled through first-person visits and more than 70 interviews with residents, staff members, and shelter volunteers at three facilities — the Courtyard Transitional Center and SAFEPlace in Santa Ana, and Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim.

The shelters' conditions and treatment of residents, who were threatened with reprisals if they tried to report infractions, are not just inhumane, they are against the law.

The report comes at a time when Orange County and its cities are in the midst of an unprecedented expansion of the emergency shelter system. "Orange County's emergency shelters are dangerously unregulated and downright abusive," said Eve Garrow, policy analyst and advocate for the ACLU SoCal. “The need for reform becomes increasingly urgent as more shelters are added to the system."

Copies of the report are being sent today to the California Attorney General, California Department of Housing and Community Development, and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and the ACLU SoCal has requested independent investigations by these state-level enforcement agencies.

In addition to harassment and inhumane conditions in the shelters, the report also found:

  • Discrimination and abuse: Residents, staff, and volunteers reported discrimination based on disability, age, race, and gender. There was, as well, sexual, physical, and verbal abuse of residents. And in some cases, staff neglected the needs of elderly residents to the point that their conditions became medical emergencies.
  • Suppression of freedom of expression and movement: Residents, in many cases, are stripped of their fundamental right to express themselves without threat of reprisal and not allowed to leave shelters on foot.
  • Deprivation of fundamental rights without due process: There is evidence that some shelter staff steal, confiscate, or destroy residents’ property, and impose sanctions (including eviction) arbitrarily and without due process.
  • Impunity and lack of accountability: Residents lack an effective way to hold staff accountable for violating their rights and experience punishing retaliation when they try to speak up either within the shelter or publicly.

The living conditions residents reported at the shelters violate the California Housing Law's standards for buildings used for human habitation, Orange County’s own municipal codes, as well as the minimum standards set forth for emergency shelters by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The discrimination, abuse, neglect, and deprivation of rights inside the shelters violate a variety of state and federal laws including the federal Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act, the Ralph Civil Rights Act and the California and United States constitutions.

Incidents of residents being ejected from shelters or threatened with ejection just for making complaints about living conditions and staff treatment violate the due process guarantees of the Constitution and the Tom Bane Civil Rights Act. "People do not give up their constitutional rights just because they are homeless," said Julia Devanthéry, staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal. "The county and its shelter operators must respect the right of shelter residents to voice complaints about the shelters without intimidating or relating against people who speak out."

The report includes ten recommendations for Orange County to bring the shelters and their operators into compliance with the law, and to provide humane services to people who are experiencing homeless. The recommendations include establishing clear and binding uniform health and safety standards; forming a county office of civil rights to protect the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness; standardizing a reasonable accommodation policy for residents with disabilities; and creating safe and confidential whistleblower policies for emergency shelter employees.

The recommendations are not just the right thing to do, they can help protect the county from liability for the wide-spread abuse and civil rights violations documented in this report.

Read the report here: