A man sleeps on the sidewalk in Hollywood. Tens of thousands of people are homeless in California. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Carla Green in Los Angeles
When she first moved into the Bridges at Kraemer Place shelter, Jan was optimistic. The southern California homeless shelter, which had just opened a couple months prior, seemed clean and well-organized. “It was so fun,” she said. “There was karaoke.”
But things quickly went downhill, said Jan, who asked that we only use her first name for fear of retribution over speaking out about the shelter conditions.
“Within a month, everything was rotten,” she said. “There was filth and mold and abuse by the staff. Mold on the floor of the bathroom, mold by the microwave … The only time it looked nice was when somebody would come to see it, like the media or someone from the board of supervisors.”
Bridges at Kraemer Place is one of three California shelters condemned for its bleak conditions in a new report from the ACLU. All are in Orange county, one of the wealthiest counties in California, which has been ravaged by a homelessness crisis. Last year there was an outcry after bus stops abutting Disneyland, one of the county’s largest employers, were stripped of benches that homeless people slept on, and local authorities were criticized for evicting hundreds of people living in a riverbed without offering them an alternative place to stay.
The ACLU report details a dizzying list of abuses and unlivable conditions, as reported by shelter residents, volunteers and staff.
The shelters were racked by infestations of rodents, roaches, bedbugs and other pests, and plagued by a culture of neglect and abuse by shelter staff, the report alleges.
“The shelters … fail to conform to standards set forth by international human rights law, which establish the minimum standard of living adequate for health and well-being,” its authors write.
“To the extent that the county or its agents have subjected people experiencing homelessness using emergency shelters to foreseeable harm and failed to intercede, it is responsible for state-created danger.”
The report includes a list of 10 recommendations to improve shelter conditions, including uniform health guidelines and due process for sanctions within the shelter system.
In response to the report, the county issued a statement saying officials are “committed to ensuring our emergency shelters are safe for all our clients”, and that they would take time to review the report before responding in detail.
This is not the first time that Orange county has been criticized for its treatment of the homeless.
Homeless advocates say the county and its cities are violating their responsibility to provide housing – or, at a minimum, shelter beds – for people living on the streets. Both the county and several of its cities are facing lawsuits alleging that they are mistreating homeless residents, in part by failing to provide enough shelter beds for them.
But the ACLU report demonstrates that itis not just the availability of shelter beds – but the quality of the shelters themselves – that’s important.
“Some of these violations [are] so egregious that they’re just hard to digest,” said Eve Garrow, a policy analyst at the ACLU of Southern California and co-author of the report.
Shelters are supposed to be humane places that actually help people and help them recover from life on the streets,” she said. “It was rather shocking to find out that not only were these shelters not living up to their promise, they’re actually harming the people they’re supposed to be serving.”
In a few cases, residents have died on shelter premises. The report notes that there were seven recorded deaths at one shelter, and another four people who died either in transit from the shelter to the hospital, or upon arrival at the hospital from the shelter.
It wasn’t long after Jan moved into Kraemer Place that she saw her first death. The man who died had been a friend of hers, she said. His name was Robert Estle.
“He said to me ‘If I don’t get out of here ‘into housing’, the only way I’ll get out is in a body bag,” Jan said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”
Estle died in a shelter bathroom in April 2018. Jan knew something was wrong when the bathroom door was locked overnight, she said.
“I’d been telling [shelter staff], ‘break down the door, something’s wrong’,” she said. “They didn’t do anything.”
When they finally opened the door, Estle was found dead, Jan said. Kraemer Place did not respond to a request for comment.
Igmar Rodas is a former resident of The Courtyard, another shelter profiled in the ACLU report. Rodas, who identifies himself as a homeless advocate and reporter, was living in his car before he moved into the shelter about three years ago. He saw similar conditions to what is detailed in the report, he said, “especially around the port-a-potties, it was full of feces. Varmints, rodents, roaches”.
Residents’ personal property was kept in trash bins, Rodas said. “One time I saw this big old rat coming out of one of the trash bins.”
“Let me put it this way. I interview people, and I ask them ‘why don’t [you] stay at The Courtyard?’ You know what they say? ‘I feel safer on the streets’.”
The Courtyard referred a request for comment to the statement issued by Orange county.
Both Rodas and Jan have moved into housing now – “by the grace of God, I got out”, Jan said – but because of their experience with the shelter system, they have both dedicated themselves to changing Orange county’s shelter system for the better.
“Now I’m blessed, but not everyone’s blessed,” Jan said.