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December 10, 2020

ACLU/Kirkland & Ellis Suit Charges Conditions in County Shelters Violate State Constitution

SANTA ANA — To spend nights in Orange County emergency shelters for people experiencing homelessness, women have had to endure relentless sexual harassment, including highly invasive body searches and voyeurism from staff members, as well as unchecked groping and lewd propositions.

In addition, the overcrowded shelters are rife with rodent and bedbug infestations; filthy and broken toilets; showers left unrepaired; and extremes in temperatures.

Residents — for whom the shelters are the only alternative to arrest for sleeping on the streets — face retaliation and even expulsion if they complain about their treatment.

The horrific conditions in the shelters, as well as punishment for merely objecting to them, are not just inhumane, they’re illegal.

Today the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California and the law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP filed a lawsuit in Superior Court in Orange County, charging that conditions in the emergency shelters violate California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, and provisions of the California Constitution that protect freedom of movement and ward against retaliation and invasions of privacy.

“Shelter residents, some of the most vulnerable people in our society, are forced to choose between living in these inhumane conditions or living on the street,” the lawsuit says, “where they risk arrest, theft, violence, and prosecution for sleeping outdoors.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of several plaintiffs who have lived in three emergency shelters: Bridges at Kraemer Place and La Mesa in Anaheim, and The Courtyard in Santa Ana. Defendants include Orange County, the City of Anaheim, and organizations contracted to operate the shelters.

“Unhoused residents of Orange County retain their civil rights when they enter homeless shelters, yet several of the largest shelters funded by the county and the City of Anaheim permit sexual harassment and substandard living conditions to flourish,” said Minouche Kandel, senior staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal. “The shelters and local government further violate residents’ freedom of movement by imposing lock-in/shut out policies in order to render shelter residents invisible to the communities in which they live.”

The squalid and abusive conditions in the facilities were detailed in a 2019 ACLU SoCal report, “This Place is Slowly Killing Me: Abuse and Neglect in Orange County Emergency Shelters,” that was the result of attorney visits to the facilities and extensive interviews with residents, staff, and volunteers. The issuing of the report led to meetings with officials, but the most serious problems in the shelters remained.

The lawsuit details the experiences of plaintiffs such as Cyndi Utzman, who suffered sexual harassment from staff members in multiple forms:

— Highly invasive body searches. (Searches of male residents were significantly less intrusive).

— When she rebuffed a staff member who tried to give her a hug, he called her “a snotty bitch,” wrongly claimed she was intoxicated, and threw her out of the shelter into the rain.

— A male staff member repeatedly entered the women’s dorm unannounced while residents were changing clothes.

Utzman’s story is hardly unique.

“The sexual harassment at the Courtyard was so bad,” said plaintiff Deborah Kraft, “that sometimes I wondered if it would have been better to stay in the abusive relationship I fled.”

Plaintiff Catherine Moore was a resident of La Mesa when she objected to body searches far beyond what men at the shelter had to endure. She was told, “if you don’t like the procedures, you can leave.”

Residents who tried to hold jobs were stymied by highly restrictive lock-in/shut-out policies that banned residents from approaching the shelters on foot or by bicycle, even if the job was only a short distance away. Instead they had to take infrequently scheduled shuttle busses that could add numerous hours to a work day.

“I really wanted to get out of the shelter and into permanent housing,” Utzman said. “I was told that without an income, I would not even be considered for permanent housing, but I could not find a job while locked up at La Mesa.”

Plaintiffs reported on woefully inadequate, unsanitary bathroom facilities. Bridges, for example, had only approximately five toilet stalls and six showers — often out of repair — for about 100 women residents, some of whom were suffering with various ailments that didn’t allow for long holds of their bladders or bowels.

In addition to people who resided in the shelters, another plaintiff is the nonprofit Oma’s Angel Foundation founded in 2013 in Anaheim to distribute food, clothing, and tents to people who are homeless. It has had to curtail these actions to help people in distress because of treatment and conditions at the emergency shelters.

“The abusive, inhumane conditions facing those who must use these local shelters must be addressed,” said Sharre Lotfollahi, a litigation partner at Kirkland leading the case. “We hope our pro bono legal assistance will help these individuals receive the justice they deserve. For far too long their civil rights have been ignored and we want to use the legal system to correct that.”

Read the lawsuit here: