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.
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