The American Civil Liberties Union Thursday released a report critical of Orange County homeless shelters, claiming there is “widespread neglect and abuse.”
But an attorney representing a class of Orange County’s homeless in a federal lawsuit said many of the problems cited in the ACLU report are being addressed in the litigation.
“I don’t think anyone, including the county, disputes a lot of the problems with the shelters,” said attorney Brooke Weitzman. “Fortunately that was part of our lawsuit… As we get closer to settling with the county most of the suggestions are in progress and being implemented.”
The ACLU alleges that a year-long investigation has shown “toxic and unsafe conditions” in three shelters — the Courtyard in downtown Santa Ana, SAFEPlace in Santa Ana and Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim.
The report alleges too few toilets, broken toilets that went unrepaired for months and “raw sewage flowing from porta potties.”
The ACLU also reported showers without temperature control, rodent and insect infestations, a shortage of soap, lack of heat during the winter and flooding during rainstorms.
The ACLU also alleged rampant sexual harassment of female transients from male staffers with some offering “special treatment in exchange for sex.”
The ACLU said the report came out of visits to the shelters as well as interviews with about 70 residents, staffers and volunteers at the three shelters.
“The county of Orange is committed to ensuring our emergency shelters are safe for all our clients,” said Molly Nichelson, a spokeswoman for the county.
“Each emergency shelter has its own provider and complaint process,” Nichelson added. “We work to ensure valid complaints are addressed by our service providers in a timely fashion. We will take the time to review the report and will respond to it accordingly.”
Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do blasted the ACLU report as “sloppy and inflammatory.”
Do added it “is an insult to the county’s collective efforts with communities” throughout the county.
“Today, homeless shelters in Orange County will provide nearly 3,000 beds to people with nowhere else to go,” Do said. “This is real help provided by our communities.”
Do accused the ACLU of standing “in the way of progress on homelessness — this time with outdated disinformation to advance their extreme agenda to turn all of Orange County into a dangerous skid row.”
Do emphasized that the county is “working to transition from a temporary shelter solution to address a homeless crisis that posed as a health risk to the public to a more permanent and service-oriented solution.”
Weitzman said the attorneys involved in the federal lawsuit, which was filed initially to block enforcement of anti-camping laws until the county could show it had adequate shelter space, are working on rules related to evictions of any transients as well as accommodating disabilities.
“The results (of the ACLU report) showed some of the things we put in the (federal) complaint,” Weitzman said.
Do agreed, saying the ACLU report “is basically a recount of issues that were brought to our attention and for the most part addressed.”
Do criticized the ACLU for “sitting” on the information in the report while officials worked on the federal suit, saying it was “counter-productive, if not… hucksterism.”
Do said the ACLU’s “opportunistic sensationalism may only serve to discourage more communities from stepping up to help our most vulnerable residents.”
Both sides agreed quickly with U.S. District Judge David O. Carter that it was preferable to get the shelters up and running first and then to shift gears toward fine-tuning conditions, Weitzman said.
“Of course, there’s always value in information and transparency. It’s great they were able to do this report,” Weitzman said. “But over the past year under the litigation cities and counties have scrambled to open something as fast as they can so people don’t die on the street. We do need to implement those policies, but we needed to get them opened first and then come back and say OK what are the things we need to have in place in terms of due process, accommodations for the disabled, and training (of staff).”
Do noted that over the past year the county has “allocated more than $189 million toward homeless-related programs. Our county has also invested $26 million to build the first county-owned mental health facility, increased the number of shelter beds at SAFEPlace women’s shelter, American Family Housing shelter for couples, and Bridges at Kraemer Place shelter, and are moving forward with the historic Orange County Housing Trust.”