Suffer Sexual Harassment Inside Shelters or Risk Arrest, Lawsuit AllegesVoice of OC

Refusing shelter can mean arrest for homeless people living out on some Orange County cities’ streets. 

But a new lawsuit by civil rights activists argues something far worse awaits those, especially homeless women, who accept it: Sexual harassment, groping, and voyeurism by shelter staff.

“The reality is that homeless shelters are not a safe place to stay in the county,” said Minouche Kandel, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, after her group filed the lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court on Dec. 10. Read it here.

On top of these issues, the lawsuit alleges the facilities are rife with other inhumane conditions — such as overcrowding, filthy plumbing, rodent and bedbug infestations, showers in disrepair and extreme temperatures — echoing similar claims in an ACLU report from 2019.

The shelters identified in the lawsuit are Bridges at Kraemer Place and La Mesa in Anaheim, and the Courtyard in Santa Ana.

The lawsuit details the accounts of eight people, now plaintiffs, who were in and out of these shelters. Kandel described the legal action as a “follow-up” to the report, which was based on interviews with homeless people, staff members and volunteers at some of the same facilities.

The lawsuit names the three groups operating these shelters — Illumination Foundation, Midnight Mission, and Mercy House — as well as the City of Anaheim and the County of Orange.

County spokeswoman Molly Nicholson declined to comment Thursday.

Anaheim city spokesman Mike Lyster, in a written response to questions, said “our shelters are among the best in Orange County and provide a better option to life on the streets and a pathway out of homelessness.”

“We value resident well-being and dignity and hold our operators to high standards with a process for concerns to be heard and addressed. We have just become aware of what is being asserted, have not had a chance to fully review and cannot comment beyond that,” he said.

Cities like Santa Ana and Anaheim, and the county, used to be barred from arresting homeless people living out in public because they didn’t offer enough shelter to meet their homeless population.

But when those agencies under a 2019 federal lawsuit settlement committed to building and funding additional shelters, they regained their ability to arrest homeless people who refused to go when offered.

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