How much information does a city owe residents about a battered women’s shelter being built in their neighborhood?
That question is at the heart of a lawsuit that a Long Beach neighborhood association has filed against the city. While state laws typically require city governments to disclose certain information to their residents, the rights and protections of domestic-violence victims — namely, their right to privacy from their abusers — can often win out over those of people who live nearby.
In this case, Long Beach has been tight-lipped about a shelter that’s under construction, and locals say the city has been withholding the information illegally.
Court filings suggest Long Beach’s tendency to keep information on the subject confidential is due to a state law that prohibits anyone from “maliciously” disclosing the location of any trafficking shelter or domestic violence shelter.
The law is intended to protect those who seek refuge there. For that reason, this news organization is withholding the name of the neighborhood association and the location of the proposed shelter.
The attorney representing the association, Todd Fuson, said the city and the shelter organization have done such a poor job of keeping the site a secret that it’s too late to claim the need for confidentiality.
“If (they) wanted it to be private, they should have either put it in a place where nobody’s really going to pay attention to it … (or) they should have quietly come to the affected neighbors and said, ‘This is what we intend to do,’ ” Fuson said. “Now, basically, they’re too late, and there’s no reason for us to trust or believe them.”
The lawsuit identifies three main issues: the lack of public hearings or notices, the site’s zoning, and an alleged conflict of interest.
Lack Of Public Hearings
Long Beach did not hold any public hearings or notify neighbors about its plans there, which Fuson said prevented residents from being able to analyze for themselves what type of impact the shelter could have on them.
Residents were first alerted to the shelter when they noticed construction happening on the site early this year.
Attempts to learn more about the specific plans through public records requests and conversations with city officials were stymied because of what Fuson said is an incorrect interpretation of the law that prohibits disclosing a shelter’s location.
“I don’t know any security measures they might have,” said Fuson, referring to shelter officials.” I don’t know what kind of people they’re bringing in.”
The facility’s executive director Mary Ellen Mitchell said she could not comment on a specific shelter or location, but in general, she said their shelters are “very safe.”
Mitchell pointed to research that shows these types of shelters have a positive impact on home values in the area and have no effect on the local crime rate.
She also said that in the organization’s 41 years of operating in Long Beach, “we’ve never had a batterer show up at our shelter.”
For Long Beach’s part, Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais said the city wasn’t doing anything barred by the site’s zoning, so hearings and notices weren’t required.
“It’s just like, for instance, if you had a vacant lot in a residential zone and you wanted to build a house on it … that doesn’t require any special hearing or notice,” Mais said. “You just get a permit.”
But the zoning itself it also at issue.
The site is zoned for a single family residence, and the suit claims putting a shelter there violates that zoning. While supportive housing — which WomenShelter claims to provide — is allowed in sites designated for single family residences, emergency shelters are not.
Fuson claims the property would be used as an emergency shelter, not supportive housing.
One of the pieces of evidence he used to argue that point was that “emergency women’s shelters offer a maximum stay of 90 days or less,” while supportive housing has no time limit. Mitchell said her organization’s shelters do not have a time limit for people living there and provide resources to help them live on their own, however long that may take.
Fuson also wrote that victims of domestic violence are not one of the populations eligible for supportive housing, which is intended for “persons with low incomes who have one or more disabilities.”
A court filing from an attorney for WomenShelter said the California Department of Housing and Community Development told Long Beach staff that people who are made temporarily homeless because of substance abuse or domestic violence do qualify for supportive housing.
Mais also said the shelter would provide supportive housing, which would be within the site’s zoning.
Conflict Of Interest
The lawsuit lists 10 Long Beach officials who serve on WomenShelter’s board as evidence that they “have an interested in ‘helping’ (WomenShelter) push its construction permits through the permitting process, in this case in violation of City laws and at the expense of the community.” (Editor's Note: Al Austin and others are on an Honorary Advisory Board, not the governing board.)
Eighth District Councilman Al Austin, who is one of those officials, is listed as a defendant. Linda Tatum, Long Beach’s Director of Development Services, is also named because she is “a large donor to The WomenShelter of Long Beach.”
Neither Austin nor Tatum responded to requests for comment. Mais said serving on a board or donating to an organization does not constitute a legal conflict of interest. For it to be a conflict, he said, city officials would have to profit from the decision in some way.
“If you had something different from that, it would discourage elected or appointed officials from participating in otherwise great local charities or causes,” Mais said.
But the way Fuson sees it, he wrote, Austin and Tatum have “ample reason to conspire not only to approve building permits for a prohibited illegal activity, but to do so in a manner that is deceptive, false and done without necessary public disclosure and opportunity for comment and objection from the community.”
For Mitchell’s part, she said preserving the confidentiality of the location and status of shelters is key to maintaining the safety that everyone claims to want.
“We’ve never had any problems of any sort, because we keep it confidential,” she said. “They don’t know where it is. They don’t know what it is… If (an abuser) showed up, we certainly would call the police. But that hasn’t happened because we’re keeping it confidential.”
Fuson said he’s not sure what the best outcome for his clients would be in this case, but he couldn’t let Long Beach slide by with what he sees as serious legal violations. He hopes a judge will determine the best way forward.
For now, Fuson is simply asking the court to require construction at the site be stopped for the duration of the lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Mais said the shelter represents a “needed use in all communities. Particularly in a city the size of Long Beach, it’s most definitely a use that has to be accommodated somewhere.”
“We’re very, very hopeful that the court will agree with that position and allow the shelter to move forward,” Mais said.
A hearing to determine whether that will happen is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 25.
Editor's Note: WomenShelter has been the beneficiary of a Grunion Gazette Christmas gift card drive for the last 14 years, and Executive Editor Harry Saltzgaver chairs the advisory board.