ACLU Issues Damning Report on 3 Orange County Homeless Shelters

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The entrance to the Courtyard Transitional Center, an emergency homeless shelter in Santa Ana. (ACLU)

new report from the American Civil Liberties Union describes alarming, often inhumane conditions in three of Orange County's emergency homeless shelters.

In the yearlong investigation, the ACLU of Southern California spoke to more than 70 residents and former residents of the Courtyard Transitional Center and SAFEPlace in Santa Ana, as well as Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim.

The report found "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."

"What we heard from people was that the shelters felt like a detention center or a jail more than a shelter that was helping them and meeting their needs," said Eve Garrow, who co-authored the report. "In fact, some people choose life on the streets over the shelter because of the effect it has on their health and wellbeing."

Shelter residents also said they lacked effective methods to report problems in the shelters without facing retaliation, the report said.

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"Staff would evict, or threaten to evict, people living in the shelters, said Garrow. “They made these threats, and they actually evicted these people, with impunity.”

Many residents, especially those with disabilities and the elderly, she added, were terrified of being put out on the streets. “This became a very effective form of keeping them quiet."

The allegations include:

  • Unsafe and unsanitary living conditions: Residents were allegedly exposed to rain, raw sewage, unsanitary and broken restroom facilities, infestations of rodents, maggots, bed bugs and other insects, and a lack of temperature control.
  • Discrimination and abuse: The ACLU received reports of discrimination based on race, gender, disability and age, as well as sexual, physical, and verbal abuse.
  • Suppression of speech: Residents say shelter staff discouraged them from speaking out about conditions and threatened retaliation if they spoke to the media.
  • Deprivation of fundamental rights without due process: The ACLU said it found evidence that shelter staff "steal, confiscate, and destroy residents' property," limit their freedom of movement and subject them to disciplinary actions — including expulsion from the shelters — without due process.
  • Impunity and lack of accountability: Residents said they lack the ability to report violations or effectively hold staff accountable for their actions, according to the report.

"I've read through the report and a lot of the things in there are things we've been addressing over the course of the last year and a half," said Susan Price, Director of Care Coordination for Orange County, which oversees the shelter operations. "To the extent that we're aware of things, we've been proactive in addressing them."

Price said the county is working on creating a standardized grievance protocol so residents can more easily report problems.

According to Price, some of the reported pest infestation issues are fairly routine in homeless shelters. Bed bugs and body lice are often brought in with residents, making eradication an ongoing problem.

"The allegations of staff misconduct, of inappropriate behavior, that's not to be tolerated," said Price. The county, she said, plans to work with their shelter contractors to refine personnel practices and potentially discipline or fire employees found to have committed offenses mentioned in the report.

Price also said that many of the residents have medical conditions that the shelters are not equipped to support. "We are trying to link people with more appropriate levels of care,” she said.

According to the ACLU report "every day that passes without massive system reforms increases the county's exposure to lawsuits for damages and injunctive relief."

The ACLU said if the county does not make substantial changes, it will consider legal action.