Santa Monica Observer - Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

Ocean Park Community Center (OPCC) Accused of Human Rights Violations

Santa Monica Facility Proves the Road to Hell is Paved With Good Intentions

 

November 24, 2017

David Ganezer

Homeless man weeps by the Statue of St. Monica at Wilshire Blvd's West End, at Ocean Avenue, in Santa Monica

(From a speech delivered Thursday evening, November 16, 2017 to Santa Monica's Housing Commission:

I am part of a group of concerned citizens that for the past fifteen months have been advocating for the most vulnerable adults in Santa Monica, namely the ones experiencing homelessness.

Our principal goal has been to raise awareness and introduce measures of accountability for an issue that the public is largely unaware of.

The issue is: the routine discriminatory and dehumanizing treatment of the most vulnerable members of our community, that is, individuals experiencing homelessness. During this Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, as a community, we must take a long hard look at the quality of homeless services funded by the City.

The largest provider of those services in Santa Monica, is OPCC -- now called The People Concern. They are a 98.8% publicly funded nonprofit with annual revenue of about $13M, out of which about $1.6M comes from the City of Santa Monica. This public funding is provided to help individuals experiencing homelessness, most of whom are disabled, move forward with their lives, toward better health, safety, and stability; and ultimately permanent housing. According to the 2015 tax form, OPCC/The People Concern chooses to spend about 73% of their annual revenue on employee salaries and benefits.

If you visit OPCC/The People Concern's website, you will see their noble mission statement. They do provide a service to our community. But in their internal operations, their very culture, there is an enormous gap between policy and practice. We have spoken about this in front of the City Council, to several authoritative bodies, to public officials and to funding agencies. We express our deep concerns about OPCC/The People Concern's non-functioning grievance procedures. We address the lack of quality staff training and supervision. We speak about blatant civil rights violations, harassment, abuse, and neglect of clients. We do not whisper, we speak clearly and openly about a culture of brazen intimidation, vengeful retaliation, and normalized disability discrimination. Indeed, this rampant practice of rash threats and intimidation of clients, is why the public has heard nothing of these egregious violations of the public trust.

We cannot emphasize this point enough: Homeless clients and those recently housed are absolutely terrified to speak out, due to the very real threat to loss of vital services – including housing and financial assistance – and sabotaging of their client records. Staff too, are terrified of speaking out, or they face termination, blackballing, and forfeiture of valued job references. The very nature of malfeasance and the codes of silence occurring in the prison and criminal justice system today, is eerily close to that at OPCC/The People Concern and other homeless service programs in LA county. We believe our Santa Monica community is better than these regressive practices. And we seek bold, meaningful, and lasting reform.

A senior attorney at Legal Aid has confirmed that their office has received these sorts of complaints about OPCC over the years. Legal Aid has communicated a strong interest in establishing an ordinance that would normalize new quality standards for homeless services providers in Santa Monica. Legal Aid is interested in reform, so that at least a minimum reasonable standard of care is met for this most vulnerable population comprised largely of people with disabilities.

Any reasonable, rational, fair-minded Santa Monican, would see the current status quo as unacceptable.

Some examples include the following:

- Clients with severe PTSD being physically or sexually assaulted at the facilities. There are no operative cameras inside and at the entrances, despite repeated pleas by residents for them. Clients are being subjected to victim blaming and emotional abuse by staff including disability mocking and being put back in danger of assault.

- Temporary and permanent eviction of disabled people into the streets, in violation of fair housing and ADA reasonable accommodation laws is a norm.

- As is not informing clients of their rights. ADA procedures are not posted anywhere in the facilities or included in the intake paperwork. They are not discussed in any form.

- The staff is untrained about and hostile to reasonable accommodation requests. For example, a wheelchair bound client asking for his bed to be lowered so that he can climb into bed had to sleep in his wheelchair for months because of the program director's inaction. Staff almost never offers a reasonable accommodation where one is obviously needed.

- None of OPCC/The People Concern's facilities in Santa Monica offer the required disabled parking, or any parking to the clients. In fact all their parking spots are used by the staff.

- More examples include whitewashing of credible client grievances and official records

- Throwing out and altering grievance forms, gaslighting and brazen lying.

- Frantic threats of withdrawal of essential care and services. And routine follow-through

on these threats.

Regarding temporary and permanently housed clients:

- Section 8 property owner relationship with OPCC staff often takes precedent over the tenant's basic human needs, even when it is foreseeable that it will seriously harm the tenant. Even when it HAS seriously harmed the tenant. And even when there was no actual threat to the Section 8 business relationship to begin with.

- The smallest perceived opportunity for extra revenue and savings will almost always trump the most essential supportive services and basic client needs. This results in more illness, disability and homelessness.

- Routine unannounced visits and invading the privacy of the housed clients, in violation of Fair Housing laws, California Constitution and tenets of common decency.

Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of today's available legal advocacy services do not ordinarily protect the disabled homeless or recently housed disabled individuals, but rather seek to preserve the status quo and a cronyistic subculture that is rife with conflict of interest. The official oversight that does exist, itself needs credible oversight. It is largely kangaroo oversight. The City Council has not responded in any way to our concerns. The city's Human Services Administrator stated that ADA training for OPCC/The People Concern staff is a long term goal for the city -- as if obeying existing federal law by facilities funded by the city, was optional and could wait indefinitely.

Despite the Municipal Code requiring that temporary housing facilities file management plans including staff training plans, the city has not been enforcing that requirement. An analysis of the OPCC/The People Concern's annual program reports from the past five years revealed that the only staff training conducted is "general skills training - computer proficiency, management skills etc" at $100 per employee.

Concerned Citizens have filed two consumer complaints with the City Attorney's Office. In May of this year and almost a half year later, those complaints were finally answered, but in a dismissive, cursory and evasive manner. Clearly, no proper and meaningful investigation took place to address our concerns. Clearly, as we have complained all along, the City of Santa Monica and OPCC are too wrapped up in each others' business, for meaningful, impartial oversight and reform. This conflict of interest is an embarrassingly obvious truth. This would be obvious to anyone who thoroughly reviewed our hundreds of hours of work to date.

The City Manager has initiated a Steering Committee on Homelessness which has been meeting for the past four months. Surprisingly, our requests to be notified of the exact composition of the committee, and their place and time of meeting has been denied to us by the Human Services Administrator who offered to be a person of contact instead. It appears that the secret Steering Committee on Homelessness has been allowed to bypass the public process for the past four months. We have asked more than once if the committee included an individual who is currently or has in the past experienced homelessness in Santa Monica. Neither the City Manager nor the Human Services Administrator responded to this question. It is a well established practice in progressive communities and organizations to include a person with a lived experience of homelessness in similar projects as they certainly can offer invaluable insights that other members of the community simply are not in a position to have. The exclusion or marginalization of individuals experiencing homelessness definitely has no place in the progressive and democratic Santa Monica we strive to be, and even more so on a committee whose main task is addressing homelessness in our city. It is hard to think of a person who knows more about homelessness in Santa Monica than a person who has been homeless in Santa Monica. Why is their voice and input not sought to be heard?

Facing the current homeless crisis, and especially during this Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, we expect more from the City than just lip service and a hands-off policy in regards to the homeless services providers funded with taxpayer money.

File Photo

Ocean Park Community Center houses many, serves few.

We urge the Housing Commission to join efforts to have a city ordinance passed that would assure operating standards for homeless services providers as allowed by Senate Bill 2, and efforts to create a temporary housing/shelter monitoring committee, like the one functioning in San Francisco. As an immediate measure, we call for the Commission to recommend that the city immediately provide effective ADA and Fair Housing training to OPCC/The People Concern staff and extend the existing legal clinic at OPCC/The People Concern to serve not only domestic violence survivors but all clients.

These matters are currently being investigated by journalists at a highly respected public media organization. As citizens of conscience we believe strongly that the degrading, dehumanizing, and discriminatory treatment of OPCC/The People Concern's clients, most of whom have disabilities, must end immediately.

 

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