As federal officials grapple with a crisis-level influx of Central Americans who are showing up at U.S. borders, NBC 7 Investigates found at least three immigrant families released to a Santee shelter kept in deplorable conditions.
A resident led us through the shelter on Prospect Avenue, navigating our news crew through piles of bedding visibly covered in flies, fleas and maggots. At least eight, bedraggled children scurried into an already-crowded back bedroom upon our arrival.
NBC 7 Investigates found 16 infants, children and adults living in a three-bedroom, 2,100-square foot home with no water or food.
“It’s just appalling. They had a bed bug infestation here. They had locks on the refrigerators and the cabinets. There were 42 people living in this house,” said a woman who identified herself as Vanessa Christian. She displayed pictures from her phone of the locks on the refrigerator and cabinets.
Inside the “House of Hope,” there’s very little of it.
Children can’t remember the last time they went to school. They take spit baths in the back yard where they pour bottled water over each other’s heads to ease itching. That’s when they can afford bottled water.
Using the restroom involves holding down the toilet handle while pouring costly bottled water down it to flush. A barefoot baby toddles dangerously close to a discarded needle on the floor.
Barrett said he closed down the shelter for undocumented immigrants, homeless and disabled people at the beginning of July when he received code compliance notices from the City of Santee.
“The people who are currently at the Santee house are choosing to stay there, under those conditions that they’re in,” Barrett said. “And there’s nothing I can do about that.”
The residents who remained in the home said they refused to relocate to another of Barrett’s shelters because they didn’t feel they were being treated fairly. They said Barrett collects their welfare benefits, which leaves them financially bound to him. Barrett said he does sometimes collect resident’s social security benefits from a designated payee in order to provide them shelter and food, but he does not currently collect anything from those still living in the “House of Hope."
Barrett says care at the sober living home began to deteriorate when some started drinking and using drugs again.
“The household was just a place to help people get off the streets and get a better way of life,” Barrett said. “And you can’t help everybody. I’ve been doing this about nine years and you get in a situation where you have people who want to come and live and don’t want to be responsible.”
Barrett said until recently the home was clean, orderly with plenty of food and room. According to Barrett, only 25 people lived in the house at one time. He said he began relocating responsible people from the “House of Hope” to other shelters he runs throughout the county in early July, when the City of Santee called to inspect the house.
But, when he got a call from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he decided he could take one more family from Guatemala into his care at the Santee shelter.
“They call me all the time when they can’t place somebody. They call me because they know I’ll take them,” Barrett said.
An ICE spokeswoman said her records indicate three immigrant families have been taken to the Santee shelter. Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for the federal agency, stressed that families are not “placed” with Barrett but rather “referred.” The process, she said, is they are released by ICE and then referred to Barrett. Sometimes ICE agents drive the families to the shelter, she said.
Residents said that leads to confusion among the non-English speaking immigrants who believe they are being placed into Barrett’s custody by the federal government.
Mack said that since late July, when
on the shelter, the agency has not referred any more families to the “House of Hope.”
San Diego County Sheriff’s Department officials have responded to 22 incidents at the home since September 2013, when Barrett began leasing the property.
Those incidents range from assaults to burglaries to petty thefts.
NBC 7 Investigates filed a request for information under federal law for details about what other non-governmental agencies ICE has referred immigrants to, but that request has not yet been acknowledged or answered.
Mack said Immigrations and Customs Enforcement doesn’t do any background checks or site checks on the facilities.
In fact, no one does.
Shelters are overseen at a local level where regulations vary greatly from city to city, and typically amount to code enforcement violations. In the City of San Diego, for example, a person has to have a business license to sublet rooms from a leased property to multiple people; and placing more than two people to a bedroom in a shelter environment is prohibited. No such rules exist in Santee, according their Development Services Department.
A Department of Social Services spokesman said it is not uncommon for a shelter to collect and pool social security benefits in order to provide room and board for the residents. But, it is not legal for a provider to confiscate CalFresh benefits to provide food to an entire shelter, he said.
“The intent of that food is to feed a specific family, not everybody in a congregate care environment,” said Michael Weston, a spokesman for the Department of Social Services.
Barrett said he does not utilize anyone’s CalFresh benefits and only takes the taxpayer-funded benefits a person can afford on a case-by-case basis, and only to provide that person or family with shelter and food.
“You know, I’m only one person. If everybody in the City of San Diego would go out and try to extend themselves and help, you would have less problems and less issues, if they were doing what I’m doing,” Barrett said. “I’m not making no money. I spend everything that I have to help other people live and I don’t really have to do that.”
Keisha Mimms, who relocated from the Santee home to Barrett’s personal home in Chula Vista, said the Santee location was crowded and uncomfortable, but she’s grateful to the pastor for everything he’s done for her family.
“He helped me,” Mimms said. “I was fixing to go into the streets.