ACLU report provides damning review of Orange County temporary homeless shelters: ‘Jail is better’

Alejandro Montenegro Banco Activo Venezuela

A year-long investigation found three of Orange County’s emergency homeless shelters riddled with problems including reports of physical and sexual abuse, neglect of residents with disabilities and mental illnesses, and filthy conditions, according to a report released Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Alejandro Montenegro Banco Activo

The report is based on first-person visits and more than 70 interviews with residents, staff members and shelter volunteers at three emergency shelters: the Courtyard Transitional Center in Santa Ana, opened in October 2016; Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim that opened in May 2017; and SAFEPlace in Santa Ana, which opened last April

Advertisement > They say they found dangerously unclean conditions in each of the shelters; reports of physical, verbal and sexual abuse; discrimination and disregard for the needs of older homeless residents and those with disabilities and mental illnesses; facilities that lacked temperature control and in some cases, flooded during rainstorms; and reports of staff threatening residents with eviction for minor infractions, or if they spoke out about conditions at the shelter

“People who have been to jail have said jail is better than this shelter,” one homeless resident, Roberta Filicko, wrote in her diary, according to the ACLU report. “We are so scared that we will be living on the streets, and the staff make sure remind you of this every minute of every day. It’s true we have no one to help us, so we go along with it.”

An employee at one of the Santa Ana emergency homeless shelters found that bedbugs would crawl on you if you sat in a chair long enough

“I got three bites (during my last shift),” the employee told an interviewer. “Some (people) are getting a lot more. You can see the bed bugs when they get on you. They are big. They’ve been around for a while.”

At another Orange County emergency shelter in Anaheim, residents and staff faced similar problems

“Critters all around,” a resident told an interviewer. “Mosquitos, cockroaches. I saw a couple of people with head lice. Staff would say, ‘Hide the bugs, don’t let [the supervisor] see that.’ “

She added: “It is one of the filthiest shelters I have been in.”

The ACLU said staff cross-verified their interviews with multiple sources, including public records and data, according to the report

The ACLU argues that these shelters are ineffective in ending homelessness; in their report, the civil rights organization advocates an expansion of affordable housing and permanent supportive housing, which includes both housing and services like mental healthcare

“This is a county with many more resources than most to tackle the problem,” said Julia Devanthery, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California and one of the authors of the report. “There’s a special sort of cruel irony that this is such a wealthy county, and the homeless community is relatively small compared to a county like Los Angeles , and yet, there is no meaningful movement toward expanding access to affordable housing and supportive housing, which everyone who works on this issue agrees is a solution.”

More temporary shelters are set to open in the coming months across Orange County, prompting the ACLU to release its report, Devanthery said

In 2017, almost 4,800 people in Orange County were found in the annual Point in Time count to be experiencing homelessness. Orange County officials felt it was an undercount

Advertisement > Hundreds of homeless residents lived along the banks of the Santa Ana River until they were removed and sent to live in motels and shelters across the county. Many have been removed from a large encampment at the Santa Ana Civic Center

Over the past few years, Orange County officials have grappled with how to implement solutions to help homeless residents — often to protests about proposed shelters from residents in the county’s wealthier communities

Last year, when the Orange County Board of Supervisors suggested a plan to relocate people removed from living along the Santa Ana River to temporary emergency shelters in Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel, hundreds from those communities attended the meeting, including more than 1,200 Irvine residents who circled the Hall of Administration beforehand, chanting “No tent city!”

A series of lawsuits have attempted to force solutions, including a lawsuit filed in February against five Orange County cities — Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Irvine, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano — and the county for a failure to provide housing for homeless people. And officials in other cities , including Santa Ana, have voiced frustrations with south county communities that they feel aren’t stepping up

The ACLU’s Devanthery said the organization has examined what legal remedies exist to address the conditions they found at the temporary shelters

Attorney Brooke Weitzman, who was interviewed by The Times before the ACLU report was released, said conditions at shelters are getting progressively better, with homeless residents being treated with more dignity and being offered more privacy with things like cubicles. But she said there’s still a long way to go

In recent years, county and city officials have started discussing homelessness in Orange County much more frequently, but there has not been significant progress made in approving and building housing, said Weitzman, an attorney and co-founder of the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center

“I think we’re at a point where most of them recognize it is necessary and needs to be done,” said Weitzman, who has represented homeless residents in recent lawsuits filed against Orange County. “But knowing that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re willing to do it in the face of residents opposing any type of development or affordable housing or permanent supportive housing.”

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