Orange County responds to complaints in ACLU report on conditions at homeless shelters

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Orange County officials said Tuesday that allegations made in a March 14 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued there is systemic abuse and neglect at three county-funded homeless shelters, were “unfounded” or could not be verified because they came from anonymous sources.

In a nine-page letter addressed to the ACLU of Southern California on Tuesday, May 7, County Counsel Leon Page also writes that some of the complaints outlined in the March report, titled “This Place is Slowly Killing Me: Abuse and Neglect in Orange County Emergency Shelters,” were already in some stage of being remedied prior to the release of the report.

The allegations involved the Courtyard shelter in Santa Ana, Bridges at Kraemer Place in Anaheim, and the women-only SAFEPlace in Santa Ana. All three programs are operated by nonprofit organizations under contract with the county.

The complaints in the ACLU report included abuse from shelter staff, infestations of bed bugs and other pests, restrooms that didn’t work, theft of personal property and violations of constitutional rights.

County response to ACLU shelter report

After the report, county officials investigated the claims, meeting with shelter operators at each of the three sites. They also reviewed county policies and procedures for emergency shelter programs, taking note of claims about dangerous and unsanitary conditions, abuse by shelter workers, and residents’ fears of retaliation if they complained, Page says in his letter to the ACLU.

“The County believes that the complaints in the Report are unfounded, have already been remedied by the County, or are in the process of being remedied,” Page writes.

Representatives from the civil rights legal group were not satisfied with the county’s response. They said Tuesday that nothing in the letter directly refutes the details of the allegations in their report. Julia Devanthery, an attorney for the ACLU, said it is “misleading” to call the allegations unfounded.

“These issues are true, correct and urgent.”

But in the letter written by Page, the county contends that “as many of the report’s allegations regarding abuse and neglect came from anonymous sources, we could not verify or dispute every specific claim.”

Page writes that as part of continuing settlement discussions with U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter and lawyers for the plaintiffs in a 2018 homeless civil rights lawsuit, “the County has already commenced a thorough review of the operational policies and procedures of each program, and many of the operational policies mentioned in the Report are already being addressed in the context of that litigation.”

Under Carter’s watchful eye, “changes and improvements are constantly occurring” at the emergency shelters, Page says.

The county’s letter includes point-by-point responses to findings and recommendations in the ACLU report. Those are based on input from service providers that operate the shelters — Los Angeles-based Midnight Mission, Mercy House Living Centers and WisePlace — and staff in county departments that oversee shelter programs, the county’s executive officer, Frank Kim, and director of care coordination, Susan Price.

In a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, Kim and Price both emphasized that the county’s letter provides more context about the operation of the shelters. They said it also notes the challenges of ramping up a system to provide appropriate shelter and care for hundreds of homeless people with myriad needs.

“Sometimes I feel like there’s a bit of a disconnect between what people expect from a homeless shelter and what a shelter is,” Kim said.

At a low-barrier shelter like the Courtyard at the Santa Ana Civic Center —  which the county opened nearly three years ago in an abandoned bus terminal — people can come in off the street without any referral, often after spending years on the streets.

“The expectation that we would never have a bed bug issue, or there would never be pests, is not something we can hold ourselves to 100 percent,” Kim said.

More than 600 people who stayed at the shelters have been transitioned to more stable housing, according to the county.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Price said. “It may not have been perfect, but it had a lot of impact on people’s lives in a positive way.”

Reached by phone late Tuesday afternoon, the authors of the ACLU report, policy analyst Eve Garrow and staff attorney Devanthery, said they had not yet received the letter from the county. But they responded to a copy provided by the Register.

“We feel this is just the start of a longer conversation about how to address these serious problems we’ve identified through our investigation,” Garrow said.

Garrow and Devanthery spent nearly a year on their investigation, based partly on anonymous sources who included people who lived at the shelters, advocates who had access to the facilities, and at least one shelter staff member. They also cited some named sources.

Garrow said state watchdog and financing agencies contacted by the ACLU in March remain concerned about the Orange County shelters.

“These problems appear to be widespread at the shelters,” she said. “You just scratch the surface and these problems reveal themselves.”