The ACLU of Southern California filed a lawsuit on December 10, 2020 against three Orange County homeless shelters run by Illumination Foundation, Midnight Mission, Mercy House, as well as against the city of Anaheim and the County of Orange who help fund and oversee these shelters, alleging sexual harassment, substandard living conditions, violations of rights, and retaliation against those who spoke against these practices.
The suit was brought on behalf of a number of plaintiffs who had stayed at these shelters—La Mesa shelter in Anaheim run by Illumination Foundation, The Courtyard Shelter in Santa Ana run by Midnight Mission, and Bridges at Kraemer in Anaheim run by Mercy House.
Fullerton’s Navigation Center (run by Illumination Foundation) is not named in the lawsuit.
Sex Discrimination and Harassment
“The staff at La Mesa and the Courtyard routinely subject women residents to unlawful sexual discrimination and harassment, including physically invasive searches, groping, other unwanted touching, leering, lewd comments, and propositioning,” the lawsuit states. “These acts create a hostile living environment and force women residents to endure this harassment as a condition of their shelter stay.”
The suit states that the “lock-in/shut-out” policy of these shelters, which is required by the County, violates the rights of residents.
“The so-called ‘Good Neighbor Policy’ is based on unfounded, negative stereotypes about homeless people, including the assumption that their presence around the shelter would have a negative impact on the surrounding community—and that being a ‘good neighbor’ therefore means preventing ‘undesirable’ people from being in the community,” the lawsuit states.
The suit cites a study commissioned by the County that admits that the Anaheim Police Department “does not have any statistical information related to the types of crimes associated with emergency shelters such as that proposed by the County.”
“The lock-in/shut-out policy segregates shelter residents from the community without legitimate justification, making it unreasonably difficult for shelter residents to travel locally to work and keep medical and other appointments,” the suit states.
Substandard Living Conditions
The suit says that “conditions at the three shelters are so unsanitary that they pose a risk to the health and well-being of shelter residents,” and that, “the shelters fail to meet minimum habitability standards for residential facilities.”
The lawsuit also says that residents who alert shelter staff or governmental authorities about the problems at the shelters faced retaliation from shelter staff, including eviction.
When asked for comment, representatives of the shelters named in the lawsuit said that they cannot comment on alleged allegations.
Illumination Foundation gave this statement to The Observer:
Due to the potential of an actual pending lawsuit, we cannot comment on any alleged allegations [sic]. It is unfortunate that hard work, dedication, passion, and caring for others who are less fortunate requires defense and justification. Illumination Foundation has served thousands of individuals and families over the past thirteen years. Our Guiding Principles are based on integrity, humility, sustainable compassion, quest for knowledge and critical thinking, client-centered care, innovation, advocacy, stewardship, and compliance. Beyond our mission to disrupt the cycle of homelessness, we believe every individual deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and should have the right to a home. We look to our clients as partners in their journey to health and healing. They have to meet us halfway and do the hard work needed to restore their lives to a place of sustained healing with an eye toward a better future. In order to achieve successful outcomes, our clients need to be actively engaged in our program. As an organization, we are extremely proactive in creating channels of communications for our clients. We have a grievance process in place across all sites, a client and staff idea/suggestion program called “Illuminate Us,” and we recently implemented a client satisfaction survey whereby clients could voice any concerns or identify areas of improvement. We provide the tools necessary to serve our clients to the best of our ability in order to meet not only their needs but their expectations. Illumination Foundation takes all client complaints seriously and examines feedback across the company in order to address concerns and improve where needed.
City of Anaheim spokesperson Lauren Gold wrote to The Observer, “We are proud of our work to open shelters and for the role they have played in helping people out of homelessness. We value resident well-being and dignity and hold our shelter operators to high standards with a process for concerns to be heard and addressed. We are reviewing what has been asserted and defer any further comment for now.”
Jessica Good, Public Information Manager for the County of Orange, wrote, “Per County policy, we cannot comment on matters involving pending litigation.”
Brooke Weitzman, attorney with the Elder Law and Disability Rights Center and the lead lawyer in the case Orange County Catholic Workers v. Orange County et al. (the settlement agreement that has led to local jurisdictions building shelters) stated that the County has recently implemented Standards of Care “to promote best practices, detail rights and responsibilities for residents and staff, and ensure the protection of due process and disability rights for all residents.”
“It appears many of the issues [stated in the lawsuit] were from before the Standards were implemented,” Weitzman said. “The Court has jurisdiction over our case for a few more years and I’m in regular contact with the shelters and County to resolve issues as they arise. We definitely encourage anyone to report violations and we will immediately bring them to the Court to be resolved.”
Weitzman also stated that two of the three shelters named in the lawsuit will be closed in the next month.
“Our settlement required the County to either get Courtyard [shelter in Santa Ana] up to HUD standards or replace it within 18 months. With that deadline upon us, Yale [a new shelter in Santa Ana] will start taking residents. A new woman’s shelter will be a component of Yale as well,” Weitzman said.
According to ACLU lawyers, a court date has not yet been set.
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