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New law seeks to improve safety and transparency at shelters

A new state law goes into effect this January, which seeks to provide standards and accountability for homeless shelters—reforms which lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and some former shelter residents believe are much needed.

State Assembly bill 362, introduced by Assemblymember Sharon Quirk-Silva, requires local jurisdictions to inspect homeless shelters if they receive complaints from occupants alleging that the shelter is substandard.

The law authorizes cities and counties to take action or issue emergency orders to the owner or operator of shelters, if a health and safety violation is found. If a shelter owner/operator fails to correct a violation, cities or counties are authorized to impose civil penalties, including withholding state funding.

One impetus for the new law was a lawsuit filed in 2020 by the ACLU of Southern California against three Orange County homeless shelters as well as against the city of Anaheim and the County of Orange who helped fund and oversee these shelters.

The lawsuit alleged 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 (which has since closed), and Bridges at Kraemer in Anaheim run by Mercy House.

Fullerton’s Navigation Center (run by Illumination Foundation) was not named in the lawsuit.

For now, the lawsuit case has been stayed by a judge who has asked the plaintiffs to use a grievance process established through earlier litigation, Orange County Catholic Worker v. County of Orange, et al.

According to Minouche Kandel, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, “The Plaintiffs do not believe the grievance process can afford them the relief that they are seeking through the lawsuit they filed, but are starting to go through that process to comply with the judge’s order. 

“The grievance process is about individual complaints, and our lawsuit is really about systemic problems,” Kandel said.

One of the Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Catherine Moore, alleges that while she was staying at La Mesa shelter in Anaheim (run by Illumination Foundation), she was sexually harassed.

When asked what changes (if any) Illumination Foundation has made to shelter policies to protect clients from sexual harassment, CEO Paul Leon wrote to The Observer, “We were named in the ACLU lawsuit for alleged sexual misconduct from a contract security company security guard. That guard was immediately released and not allowed to return…we did review ALL of our security procedures which are well defined and comply with all local requirements.”

When asked to respond to allegations that clients were retaliated against, Leon said, “We conduct regular client surveys, Town Hall Meetings and have a complaint/comment box that is handled and addressed by our HR department.”

Moore and other plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit also claim that their freedom of movement was restricted by a policy they call “lock in/shut out” and shelters call “Good Neighbor.”

“Basically, people can only arrive at the shelter by car (many people who are unhoused don’t have a vehicle), or on a shuttle that the shelter runs, which has limited seats and only runs a few times a day,” Kandel explained. “So if you don’t get a spot in the morning to get out, you’re locked in, and if you miss it coming back in the afternoon, you’re locked out. We had clients who lost jobs because even though there was a bus that went right close from the shelter to their job, they couldn’t walk from the bus stop to the shelter.”

When asked about this policy, Leon wrote, “We have a written policy on requirements to stay within our facility. We are a harm reduction facility with a low barrier to entry.”

Eventually, Moore was able to leave the shelter and get into a two-year housing program provided by Mercy House. This program recently ended and she is now back on the streets.

According to Kandel, the best solution to homelessness is not emergency shelters, but housing.

A key contention of  a 2019 ACLU report and the 2020 lawsuit is that unhoused people in Orange County face a difficult choice: be arrested or enter emergency shelters where they face the kinds of problems alleged in the lawsuit.

Although she does not believe the conditions highlighted in the report and the lawsuit have been “fixed” Kandel is hopeful that AB 362 will offer some much-needed oversight.

“Are all the shelters fixed yet? Probably not. But now at least there will be a clear standard and a clear process to make sure the standards are upheld,” Kandel said.

A review hearing is set for January 27 in which plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit will be able to update the Court on whether the grievance process is working.


2 replies »

  1. I was a client at LaMesa shelter Anaheim for A little over a year I got my housing in 2021 an moved into my apt.I want to say that while I was a client I was treated w the up most respect an dignity at ALL times the shelter was kept VERY clean if we had ANY plumbing problems they took care of them immediately that’s was ample shuttle service off and on site 7 days a week if u missed the service back on site they made a trip out to come get u you were not left on the street!!All site staff and security and management as well as case workers were always there to help all clients! I.F is a wonderful organisation and LaMesa was one of the best ran shelters around.In knowing what I know about LaMesa if clients complained these horrible complaints about there stay there it is because they would not and could not comply to having structure in there lives..an yes we did have those who just wanted to raise hell because they couldn’t comply w policy but the whole time staff was very understanding and STILL tried to help.

  2. Great, it’s about time something is being done. I’m homeless, have been for several years in Fullerton. One of many reasons why I REFUSED to go to a shelter. Hearing the same complaints over and over again from people I didn’t even know. Being rounded up like cattle and FORCED into shelters by police is another issue. “Go to a shelter or go to jail” FPD. Those who refused were arrested. Then released into shelters afterwards.Sounds like Racketeering to me. FOLLOW THE MONEY TRAIL.

    Not once, not twice, but three times I’ve had my truck and trailer impounded by the FPD. The third time I was arrested by Franco. Charges dropped 4 days later by the DA. Yet still out $1,500 to get truck and trailer out of impound. Funny thing, tow company is owned by a good friend who’s on city councile. In the Middle East its called “WASTA”

    How would you folks like to be RAN OUT OF TOWN BY THE POLICE. Your home, the town you grew up in,a place where you felt safe from all the street violence? Being afraid every minute, everyday while struggling to even survive with some dignity, let alone live. I’m now in Maryland no longer afraid, just freezing my ass off.

    There’s a lot of corruption. Not only should the Agencies be monitored but the Cities and Police as well. FOLLOW THE MONEY TRAIL.

    There are three things that can never be hidden. The Sun The Moon and the Truth Budda