Meth, death and abuse: Inside the private security forces patrolling California’s homeless

April 10, 2024

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By Lauren Hepler, originally published by CalMatters with funding from A-Mark Foundation.


Wendy Powitzky thought she’d finally found a way off the street in Orange County.

The former hairdresser had spent years sleeping in her car and parks around Anaheim, near the suburban salons where she used to work. One day a social worker told Powitzky about an old piano shop recently converted into a shelter.

She just had to clear security to reach her new twin bed.

That’s where guards at the taxpayer-funded shelter groped and strip-searched her and several of her neighbors, and left them in constant fear of eviction, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of eight former Orange County shelter residents.

“It was going to be my saving grace,” Powitzky said of the Anaheim shelter. “It was more unsafe.”

As California’s homeless population spiked nearly 40% in the past five years, the growth has been accompanied by a boom in private security. Governments, nonprofits and businesses are increasingly turning to hired guards to triage homelessness, opening a new front in the state’s housing crisis — one ripe for violence and civil rights issues, but thin on accountability and state oversight.

More than a dozen recent legal proceedings and public contract disputes reviewed by CalMatters suggest that, rather than ensuring safety, guards can compound already dangerous and chaotic situations.

Shelter residents in multiple Southern California cities have alleged in lawsuits that they were raped or sexually assaulted by shelter guards, including a Los Angeles case where a guard was sentenced to prison after a homeless woman complained of repeated abuse. In Sausalito, people living at a publicly funded tent city said in court that contract workers dealt drugs and harassed women. After a homeless woman in LA was stabbed to death by a fellow shelter resident, her family sued a guard for negligence in an ongoing lawsuit, alleging that he remained at an onsite office despite loud screams during a long attack.

No state agency publicly tracks how many guards work with homeless people, let alone what happens when things go wrong. The California agency that regulates guards — the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services — denied a CalMatters public records request for complaints and reports of violence involving guards and homeless people.

Several lawsuits, meanwhile, allege that security companies, shelter operators and government regulators have failed to properly train and oversee guards, who in some cases are paid just over minimum wage and struggling to stay housed themselves.

“Private security is a lot cheaper than cops,” said Paul Boden, executive director of activist group the Western Regional Advocacy Project. “And a lot less regulated.”

Around the world, economic researchers have found that private security reliance tends to rise along with income inequality and fear of crime. The industry grew nearly 20% in California from 2010 to 2022, the most recent state data shows, to more than 301,000 licensed guards — a force that outnumbered sworn law enforcement officers roughly 4 to 1.

In recent decades, court rulings have put some limits on local governments’ and police’s ability to clear encampments and interact with homeless people. Private guards are bound by different rules.

The legal complaints against security guards underscore bigger flaws in the state’s approach to homelessness. Guards and other front-line workers often aren’t trained to handle complex social issues. And despite public officials who criticize homeless people for rejecting shelter, some unhoused people say shelters and city-run encampments can be worse than the street.

More political pressure is on the horizon. This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on whether clearing encampments when there is no shelter available violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign includes a plan to “relocate” homeless people from cities, arresting those who refuse and sending others to large tent cities. In California, a bipartisan statewide bill would make it easier to sweep encampments and ticket or move people off the street.

As crackdowns loom, homeless advocates argue that pouring money into stopgaps such as private security and temporary shelters — rather than permanent housing — will breed more problems.

“You put people in power over incredibly vulnerable people who are dependent for their very place to live,” said Minouche Kandel, a staff attorney for American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “It’s a setup for abuse of power.”

The Bureau of Security and Investigative Services said it has received 20,475 total private security complaints since 2019, but that it has no way to search for how many involved unhoused people.

“The Bureau looks into every complaint it receives, and when determining if a violation has occurred, the Bureau relies on facts and information obtained during the course of an investigation,” the agency said in a statement.

Former shelter residents like Powitzky are the first to note that there can be very real security concerns associated with homelessness. It isn’t easy, she said, for people who have struggled with trauma, constant stress and sometimes addiction or mental illness to live in close quarters with limited privacy.

That’s why she was initially reassured by the uniformed guards at the front door of Anaheim’s La Mesa shelter in 2019.

One night when Powitzky attempted to enter the shelter with her adult son, a guard approached after she cleared the metal detector and told her to put her arms up. The guard proceeded to “rub her hands all over” Powitzky’s breasts, she said in the lawsuit, making her son “uncomfortable watching his mother get touched in this manner.” Powitzky didn’t complain for fear of eviction.

Later that same month, Powitzky said another shelter guard forced her to expose her breasts in front of male guards and other residents. More invasive searches where guards “inappropriately rubbed” her body followed, she said in the lawsuit, even after she did complain.

“I honestly just felt like they wanted to get people out of there — ‘You’re going to do what we want, or you’re going to get out of here,’” Powitzky told CalMatters. “It’s a horrible way to run a situation for people that are already having problems with their life.”

The shelter was built by the city of Anaheim and run by the nonprofit Illumination Foundation, which then contracted with L.A.-based security company Protection America. The foundation did not respond to multiple requests for comment about how much they paid the guards, or the allegations by residents. In response to the ongoing lawsuit, the foundation and the city of Anaheim said in court filings that security searches were a city requirement at the shelter, but that neither party “can be held vicariously liable for alleged sexual battery” by guards.

The La Mesa shelter was shuttered in 2022 as part of a plan to focus on and expand another city shelter, Anaheim spokesperson Mike Lyster said in a statement. Protection America and Orange County declined to comment. The security company denied the allegations in a January court filing.

“We require high standards for our shelters and expect security to be done with compassion and respect,” Lyster said in the statement. “The issues raised here were taken seriously and investigated. We stand by our shelter operator’s work and procedures at La Mesa.”

In addition to the searches, Powitzky said in the lawsuit that it was impossible to work her way out of the shelter; she lost two jobs due to scheduling issues with a strict curfew. She left in early 2020 when COVID hit, not wanting to get stuck inside with shelter staff and guards who, the lawsuit alleged, appeared to lack appropriate training.

“I’m still in limbo. I sleep in my car at night,” Powitsky said in the interview. “I will never go to a shelter again.”

Encampent wars

On the first sunny morning after days of tent-thrashing rain on Skid Row, a downtown Los Angeles native and longtime activist known as General Dogon (given name Steve Richardson) is rallying the neighborhood. Between taking orders for new sleeping bags financed by an online fundraiser, the Los Angeles Community Action Network organizer points out the security guards that dot the streets around him.

Just around the corner was where, three decades earlier, Dogon saw the first of what he called “the red shirts” — uniformed, armed private guards hired by a local tax-funded business group charged with cleaning up downtown. He’s been fighting them ever since.

California’s private security industry has existed for more than a century, but in 1994 state lawmakers granted the business groups — formally known as Business Improvement Districts, or BIDs — a right to spend public money on private security. Dogon had just gotten back from serving a long prison sentence and was living in a nearby residential hotel when he started to hear stories that turned into class-action lawsuits.

“They was jacking up homeless people, taking their tents, pushing them down the street,” he recalled. “They were so bad, we was getting complaints from drug dealers that they was taking the drug dealers’ stuff.”

Dogon had a front-row seat for court battles in the 1990s and 2000s that added some checks to prevent BIDs and their guards from harassing people and destroying belongings.

But with California now home to a record 181,000 homeless residents, tension on public streets is hitting another high. And when it comes to private security, BIDs were just the beginning.

Guards still patrol many property-tax-funded downtown districts. Cities are also directly entering into contracts with security companies and nonprofits to patrol encampments or other public areas. Some businesses and residents hire their own guards, frustrated by property crime and what they consider a lack of police responsiveness.

For security companies, it all adds up to surging demand from clients who increasingly expect them to replicate law enforcement, complete with guns, body cams and pricey liability insurance, said Robert Simpson, owner of Fresno County Private Security. It’s a far cry from earlier eras of “observe and report” security, he said, when guards were trained to call police for social issues or more heated conflicts.

“Now if we make that phone call, they may show up two, three days later,” said Simpson, whose company was sued after a guard shot a homeless man in what the guard described as self-defense. “We’re navigating what is being presented to us.”

Some security companies advertise “transient eviction” or other services to “control and manage any homeless activity.” In LA, security company DTLA Patrol and its armed, state-licensed guards were featured in a report on a local TV station on how “Private Security Helps LAPD in Homeless Crisis.”

“Essentially, we are a subscription-based law enforcement service,” the company’s founder told KNBC in 2020, emphasizing that his guards focus on private rather than public property.

State-licensed security guards must undergo background checks and complete 40 hours of required training within their first six months on the job, compared to 664 hours for law enforcement basic training.

The state also requires guards to take a series of classes offered by dozens of state-authorized private companies or colleges. Classes span citizen’s arrests, terrorism and de-escalation, plus a “public relations” course that covers diversity, mental illness and substance use. In recent years, state lawmakers moved to require new use-of-force training and reporting standards, after which incident reports more than doubled from 2019 to 2023, state reports show.

Now, the security boom is poised to collide with encampment backlash.

California Sen. Brian Jones, a San Diego Republican, is leading a bipartisan effort to strengthen encampment bans in cities across the state. Senate Bill 1011 is modeled on a San Diego camping ban designed to push people into large, outdoor tent cities with 24-hour security.

Any concerns about security or other civil rights issues, Jones said, should be weighed against dire street conditions.

“Those things are happening in the encampments, too — you know, sexual assault, drug abuse, drug overdoses, murder, attacks,” Jones said. “It’s easier to keep an eye on and enforce if the locality does decide to use a safe camping site.”

Homeless people and their advocates, meanwhile, say security guards are just one of several converging threats. Police shootings of homeless people have spurred other wrongful death and excessive force lawsuits. Two serial killers recently targeted people in tents in LA and Stockton.

All told, death rates for homeless people more than tripled in the past decade, the University of Pennsylvania found. Advocates across the country increasingly worry about vigilante violence, as Kentucky weighs a measure that would decriminalize shooting people camping on private land.

“It’s a really scary time,” said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center. “When we have governments giving permission to their own law enforcement to harass and punish people, it gives an implicit green light to others.”

The new guard

Small local security companies. Bigger regional firms winning contracts across the state. Global private security behemoths that dabble in homeless shelters.

In the sea of companies vying for publicly funded homeless security work in California, one newcomer stands out: a six-year-old San Francisco nonprofit called Urban Alchemy. It insists it’s not a security company at all, but it has received public funds earmarked for security and been called a “de facto” security provider in legal complaints filed by former shelter residents.

Urban Alchemy advertises street cleaning services and “complementary strategies to conventional policing and security.” Its revenue quickly multiplied — from $36,000 in 2019 to $51 million in 2022, tax records show — after winning a slew of contracts to manage city-funded shelters and sanctioned encampments.

With a motto of “No fuckery,” the marketing revolves around de-escalation, “calming public spaces” and employing workers who have experienced homelessness, poverty and incarceration.

Some who have lived in shelters managed by Urban Alchemy tell a different story.

“They come on very friendly and sympathetically and then use drugs to take advantage of us, many of whom are struggling to stay clean,” one former resident of a Sausalito site contracted to Urban Alchemy, said in a 2022 court filing in a wide-ranging civil rights lawsuit against the city.

Urban Alchemy won a $463,000 city contract to manage the Sausalito tent city housed at a public tennis court during the pandemic. In the civil rights suit, which the city eventually paid $540,000 to settle, encampment residents alleged that Urban Alchemy workers sexually harassed women and “used and trafficked methamphetamine.”

The city did not respond to requests for comment, but said in a legal filing that two Urban Alchemy workers were removed from the site and one was fired, and that no police reports were filed. Urban Alchemy’s contract with the city was not renewed, and the organization denied the allegations in a statement to CalMatters. The nonprofit has larger ongoing government contracts in LA, Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, where another former worker is awaiting trial on charges of attempted murder after shooting a person outside the shelter where he was working.

Urban Alchemy declined to make an executive available for an interview. The organization said in a statement that its workers complete “extensive training,” including two days of paid lessons and roleplaying on conflict resolution, complex trauma and inclusivity. Workers are not required to be state-licensed as guards, and people with criminal backgrounds could be ineligible under state law.

In an email, Urban Alchemy’s community and government affairs head Kirkpatrick Tyler said, “Urban Alchemy practitioners do life-saving work in our communities that is more difficult than most of us could imagine.” When it comes to security issues, he said workers are taught to use “emotional bank accounts” and follow a six-step process to de-escalate: “If at any point during this process, a person becomes violent or has a weapon, practitioners will call the authorities.”

Tyler said the nonprofit is “saddened by the news media’s repeated eagerness to regurgitate every one of these kinds of claims it hears about Urban Alchemy – an organization that happens to be composed of more than 90% Black formerly incarcerated long term offenders.”

Several of Urban Alchemy’s own workers have also sued the nonprofit over alleged labor and wage violations, discrimination, sexual harassment and unsafe work environments. A San Francisco sexual harassment case – which Urban Alchemy has denied – is ongoing, and the organization has settled other labor lawsuits in San Francisco and LA.

Carmina Portillo heard about the job by chance. The 38-year-old LA resident and auto mechanic was homeless herself and evangelizing at a park when she got curious about a man in uniform sitting next to a Porta Potty.

“I asked the guy there how much he was getting paid, and it was $19 an hour,” Portillo said. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot for just sitting there.’”

Last year, she filed a lawsuit against Urban Alchemy over alleged unpaid wages, discrimination and wrongful termination after working for eight months at an LA “Safe Sleep” site — a temporary outdoor shelter lined with city-funded tents. It was always an unwieldy job, Portillo said, ranging from making sure no one was overdosing to cleaning bathrooms or serving food.

State records show Portillo wasn’t licensed for security work. Rather, she and colleagues were left to “take matters into our own hands,” she said in an interview, if problems arose. In one case, Portillo said in the lawsuit that a supervisor discouraged her from calling for medical help after a homeless resident told her in Spanish that he was in distress.

Urban Alchemy denied the claims in a legal response, arguing that Portillo did not complain and that its other employees “acted reasonably, in good faith, and in a manner consistent with the necessities of their business.”

Looking back today, Portillo pauses when she thinks about what to call Urban Alchemy.

“I would just say it’s a gang,” she said. “Literally that’s how I felt. There’s a lot of tension.”

Tyler of Urban Alchemy said, “Every large organization deals with some HR issues. When these issues arise, we take them seriously, and we do our best to handle them fairly.”

Portillo settled her lawsuit with Urban Alchemy; the terms are confidential.

A deadly response

Three hours inland in Fresno, a different type of reckoning over homelessness and private security is playing out — over what happens in extreme cases, when clashes with armed guards turn deadly.

In March 2021, a Fresno man with a history of mental illness named Joseph Gutierrez was shot to death after a struggle with a 21-year-old guard outside a vacant building. The guard in the case was not hired by a city or a shelter, but by nearby businesses to patrol the area.

Surveillance video shows that the guard employed by Fresno County Private Security lightly kicked a sleeping Gutierrez’s feet and shined a flashlight in his eyes. Once awakened, an unarmed Gutierrez got up and lunged for the guard’s neck. The guard shot four times at close range. A fifth shot hit a bystander in a parking lot, who survived.

No criminal charges were brought against the guard. Gutierrez’s widow recently agreed to an undisclosed settlement in a civil wrongful death lawsuit brought against the security company. The company didn’t admit responsibility in the settlement, and Simpson, the owner, emphasized that the shooting was in self-defense.

“You’re going to have the Monday quarterbacks — ‘Why didn’t he do this?’ ‘Why didn’t he do that?’” Simpson said. “Until you’re in the moment, you can’t quarterback that.”

It’s not the only recent guard controversy in Fresno. Last year, another private security contractor was removed from local homeless shelters after the Fresno Bee reported on guards’ pepper “spray first, ask questions later” policy.

“I’m not surprised that this is a mounting problem with the growing number of homeless folks out there,” said Butch Wagner, the attorney who represented Gutierrez’s widow and children. “These security people have no idea what the hell they’re doing.”

The guard in the Gutierrez case took additional courses at a local community college, and work logs filed in the case show that he came into contact with homeless people often: asking “three vagrants” to leave a Family Dollar store, removing a man from the Little Caesar’s Pizza dumpster, moving along people sleeping in bushes and alleys all along his route — “no use of force required,” he often wrote in the logs.

Wagner, who has also filed suit against police officers accused of shooting homeless people, is most concerned about rules governing when guards are armed.

State law requires that private guards who want to carry a gun apply for a permit and pass a test with the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services demonstrating that they are “capable of exercising appropriate judgment, restraint, and self-control.”

Simpson said it’s up to his guards whether they want to be armed, and also whether a client requests it. He estimates less than 5% of his Fresno County Private Security guards are armed.

“It is your choice. You want to be armed, you can be armed,” Simpson said of his policy. “But you will use a company firearm.”

Had he lived to tell about it, Gutierrez, 35, would have been more qualified than most to weigh in on the debate about where his home state should go from here on homelessness and security.

Before he was killed outside an empty building with 19 cents in his pocket, he’d been a guard, too.

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