Eight plaintiffs allege relentless sexual harassment, invasive body searches, unchecked groping, and lewd propositions from staff members and residents.
The lawsuit, filed on Dec. 10 in Orange County’s Superior Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) and the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, argues that the unlivable environments at the shelters violate California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act and provisions of California’s Constitution.
The shelters—Bridges and La Mesa in Anaheim, and The Courtyard in Santa Ana—are overcrowded, infested with rodents and bedbugs, and plagued by filthy and broken toilets, unrepaired showers, and extreme temperatures, the suit states.
“Unhoused people in Orange County are in an untenable position,” Minouche Kandel, senior staff attorney at ACLU SoCal, told The Epoch Times.
“If they stay living outside, they risk being arrested. But shelters are subject to sexual harassment, uninhabitable living conditions, and serious infringement on their freedom of movement.”
When The Epoch Times contacted county officials for response to the claims, Molly Nichelson, public information officer for the County of Orange, said, “We have yet to fully digest the filing and have no comment at this time.”
One alleged infringement is a “lock-in/shut-out” policy at Bridges and La Mesa that requires residents to approach or leave the shelters in a vehicle.
The alternative option is a shelter shuttle—but the shuttle only runs four times per day and can accommodate a mere fraction of the shelter residents.
Any resident who violates the policy risks being evicted.
Kandel said the the policy is not currently being enforced at The Courtyard because the county is in the process of replacing the shelter with a new facility.
“[But] they have announced that at that new facility, they will institute that policy,” she added.
Kandel argues that the lock-in/shut-out policy should be completely eliminated.
“It’s based on unfounded and negative stereotypes about unhoused people,” she said. “It’s really trying to segregate unhoused people from the community and render them invisible. To literally say that people can’t walk or bike to the shelter is to say that they literally don’t want other people in Orange County to have to see unhoused people, which is tremendously offensive.”
Nevertheless, Kandel said Orange County appears to be “very committed” to enforcing this policy. “It is a growing trend,” she said.
In addition to posing a potentially illegal inhibition on freedom, she said the policy prevents shelter residents from maintaining work schedules and keeping medical appointments.
Wendy Powitzky, a resident at La Mesa in 2019, said she lost two jobs as a result of the lock-in/shut-out policy. In both cases, she said she found herself unemployed because the shelter shuttle didn’t run during times that coincided with her scheduled shifts.
Several of the plaintiffs allege continual sexual harassment from staff members and other residents.
Cyndi Utzman, who spent time at all three shelters listed in the lawsuit, claims to have been victim to invasive body searches to which male residents were not subjected. She also said a male staff member repeatedly entered the women’s dorm unannounced while residents were changing clothes.
On another occasion, when she recoiled from a staff member who tried to hug her, she said she was called “a snotty bitch” and was threatened to be evicted from the shelter in the rain.
Plaintiff Deborah Kraft claims she couldn’t report the sexual harassment she allegedly experienced from male residents at The Courtyard because the staff allegedly engaged in the same behavior.
“The sexual harassment at The Courtyard was so bad that sometimes I wondered if it would have been better to stay in the abusive relationship I fled,” Kraft was quoted as saying in an ACLU SoCal press release.
When plaintiff Catherine Moore objected to alleged invasive body searches at La Mesa, she was reportedly told, “If you don’t like the procedures, you can leave.”
Unhealthy Living Conditions
The lawsuit further alleges that residents at the shelters are impacted by substandard living conditions.
The Courtyard, for instance, allegedly lacks heating and cooling, and forces some residents to sleep in areas without a roof.
Photos that accompany the lawsuit show extreme temperatures. On July 7, 2018, the inside temperature was 96 degrees. On Dec. 31, 2018, the temperature reached 54 degrees.
In addition, there are allegedly just three permanent bathrooms for more than 200 women at The Courtyard. Photos from 2018 included in the lawsuit document overflowing, unsanitary portable toilets.
Bridges has about five toilets and six showers to accommodate around 100 women, some of whom suffer from bladder- and bowel-related ailments, the lawsuit claims.
The suit says all three shelters are infested with pests, rodents, bedbugs, pigeons, and roaches.
‘It’s Like Torture’
Another plaintiff listed in the lawsuit is Oma’s Angel Foundation (OAF), an Anaheim-based nonprofit dedicated to distributing food, clothing, and tents to local homeless people. But the foundation’s actions have been disrupted in order to provide help for those in need at emergency shelters.
“I just want my friends to be treated in a humane manner. I want the county and the city to stop torturing my friends. Because the way they’re being treated, it’s like torture,” OAF founder Heidi Zimmermann told The Epoch Times.
“A friend of mine was texting me that, if you don’t get me out of here, I’m going to end up at the coroner’s. And he predicted his own death. Within a few days, he was dead,” she said.
“The messages I’m getting from people are horrendous. They know they’re gonna die or they’re gonna commit suicide. They cannot stand the conditions of the shelter.”
Kandel said the lawsuit was their only recourse, given the circumstances.
“We didn’t rush into litigation,” she said. “We gave the county and the city and the shelters ample opportunity to correct the problems that we had identified, but they failed to do so.”
In March, 2019, ACLU SoCal released a report entitled, “‘This Place is Slowly Killing Me.’: Abuse and Neglect in Orange County Emergency Shelters.” The 100-page report documents unsafe, unsanitary living conditions; discrimination and abuse; deprivation of fundamental rights; and lack of accountability among staff members. The Courtyard and Bridges were two shelters reviewed in the report.
“After we issued the report, we sent copies of it to government officials,” Kandel said. “We had a meeting with officials from Orange County to try and encourage them to respond to the problems that we had highlighted. And that went nowhere.
“There was absolutely no follow-up. We reached out to them [but] they just were not interested in engaging.”
Kandel said the next step is to serve the defendants, which include Orange County, the City of Anaheim, and the following organizations contracted to operate the shelters: Illumination Foundation, Midnight Mission, Mercy House Living Centers, and Protection America.