Open Letter to the City of West Hollywood, its council members and City Hall staff, Jeffrey Peninger, West Hollywood, California
(Editor’s note: This letter comes to us, as so many have recently, due to a Los Angeles Weekly cover feature on Ryan Gierach’s rebuilding his life during his staying at PATH.)
I have resided for over 2 ½ months in PATH Hollywood Facility, on Fernwood Avenue, in the City of Los Angeles.
My bed has been graciously provided for me by the city, and I understand and appreciate the fact that the City of West Hollywood is spending a great deal of money to properly house, feed, and provide for the general welfare of both myself and my service animal. And for that I am truly grateful.
However, things beyond both the control and direct supervision of my beloved city of West Hollywood, are going on behind the scenes here at PATH. Things that greatly increase the risk of health problems, for me and the 60 other residents of the facility.
I have hepatitis C, a liver disease that compromises my immune system, and that puts me at greater risk for opportunistic diseases. These diseases include Hep A & B, pneumonia, bronchitis, influenza to name the most commonly known…
These diseases are frequently passed through communal residential living programs, especially in the bathing and dining facilities. Most commonly, through a failure to properly handle food, and improper implemented cleaning techniques.
These techniques include maintaining food at proper temperatures throughout the food life cycle. “From proper storage temperatures to proper cooking temperature and especially the proper service temperature”.
Cleaning techniques for proper management of communal areas, including separate washing, rinsing and sterilization sinks for the cleaning of serving pans, plates, dishes and utensils.
I have repeatedly asked staff questions regarding the use of chlorine (commonly referred to as ‘Clorox’ or ‘bleach’) as a simple, yet effective sterilizer in general use in commercial establishments. Throughout the United States this is the accepted method for this process. A tablespoonful in a 10 gallon sink is an approximate, but fairly accurate, ratio. It is a cost effective as well. I price household chlorine bleach at 99₵ Only Store, at 99 cents a gallon. This is an acceptable commercially available equivalent to the powder in use in commercial food preparation operations.
I asked about chlorine, only to be told by the cook that there was none available; and, when the cooking staff was asked regarding its use, I was told that they couldn’t keep it available, because it “goes missing…” Therefore, it is not always available to be used.
When I asked the residential staff responsible for serving food when the cook is not directly supervising its service, they were not familiar with basic food handling procedures, simple information that ALL fast food restaurants are REQUIRED by law to have ALL their employees certified with before they are allowed to be employed by the restaurant. It’s called a “Food Handler’s Card,” and is a certification of basic food service safety.
I mention my medical condition in order to put forward a real life situation where living in a community residential program may have a devastating effect on a person’s ability to continuing in ideal health. Some diseases can literally kill me if my condition were exacerbated, or if I were in end stages of Hep. C. I am asymptomatic, and therefore I am lucky in this. However, some of my fellow residents are not so lucky.
This weekend has been an especially eye opening one in regard to proper food handling at PATH Hollywood.
Food supplies were delivered, some of it frozen, in boxes, around 10 AM. It sat in front of the freezer on a cart for several hours prior to being placed in the freezer itself around 6:15 pm. It is unknown by this writer as to its condition when placed into the freezer for storage. But, with temperatures that day reaching well into the upper 80’s, I highly doubt that it was still frozen; and, should not have been refrozen.
The U. S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) advises:
“Once food is thawed in the refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze it without cooking, although there may be a loss of quality due to the moisture lost through thawing. After cooking raw foods which were previously frozen, it is safe to freeze the cooked foods. If previously cooked foods are thawed in the refrigerator, you may refreeze the unused portion. Freeze leftovers within 3-4 days. Do not refreeze any foods left outside the refrigerator longer than 2 hours; 1 hour in temperatures above 90 °F.*” (*emphasis added)
While this is regarded as improper, what has followed is even more disturbing.
Later that evening, after the food had been stored in the freezer, a container of food fell out of the freezer, apparently because it leaned against the door of the freezer, and was left to thaw on the floor. The freezer door would not close completely, left open by an inch or so.
As, for the spilled food, it remained there, juxtaposed between the guard and the freezer, drawing nearby flies, and started to smell up the lobby.
I am witness to it remaining on the floor of the downstairs lobby, for hours, in front of a freezer where our food is stored. The fallen container of food actually blocked the path of the guard, and so he pushed his desk closer to it, his chair further away, creating an opening on the opposite side in order to provide a path that didn’t include this “obstacle” to him doing his job of opening the door.
Rather than clean the spill, he just let it sit there throughout his shift. His reasoning, when asked about the spill: “…it isn’t my job.”
It eventually was cleaned up by a resident, who finally got fed up smelling it across the room.
Now, just less than 72 hours later, the freezer is at 68 degrees. ALL food is now unusable and cross contaminated by thawed chicken leaking throughout. Blood has now pooled in the floor of the unit, and onto the floor of the lobby.
During the progression of this incident, a mantra of “Not my job…” has been echoing across this facility.
Now realize, at this time, that freezer has failed not because of a mechanical failure, but by improperly storing the food. I have witnessed at least 72 hours where the doors are unable to close, the food stored in it thawed and it is leaking out onto the floor, causing the lobby to smell…
From the guard at the desk – “not my job to sweep up the fallen food on the ground… They have a cleaning service”
From the chef – “It’s not my job to make sure the food stays safe in the freezer… That’s why they have it behind the guard station…”
From the guard at the desk – “It’s not my job to make sure the freezer is closed, that’s why they have a cook staff…”
From the guard at the desk – “It’s not my job to store the food into the freezer, that’s the residential staff’s job…”
And meanwhile, one misstep on the part of a resident will get them sent to the streets, with little to no regard of where they end up.
But when PATH makes a mistake, the first gut reaction on the part of the staff is to pass the blame, or to shove the topic back onto the resident’s failures, as opposed to finding solutions to the problem at hand.
I am not interested in blame. I am concerned more with outcomes.
Proper food handling is critical to a communal residential program.
Providing meals is a finely balanced dance between proper procedures and proper equipment for operating it in a safe manner, and providing nutritionally balanced meals that are appropriate for a varied population of clients, and securing the funding needed to purchase all the equipment and food to provide such meals. The hardships in this area are well known.
Proper staff instruction and certification of proper practices is of critical importance.
And to make it perfectly clear, I have not worked in the kitchen, and have not personally witnessed the process that is used to wash dishes. But, I have asked the residents whose chore it has been to wash the dishes if in fact they were taught the 3-step process. Several times I was told no such instruction was given, and in some instances, was told that the sinks were clogged, and that only a single washing sink was used.
This is unhealthy situation.
The lack of ventilation in the kitchen has created a resident attitude towards fire alarms that is both dangerous and understandable.
The fire alarm is triggered by cooking almost anything. It goes off so often, that when it went off last week at 3 in the morning, literally no one stirred. Only those of us with anxiety disorders, and we just looked up long enough to verify it was in fact only the PATH fire alarm, and then turned over and went back to sleep… not even waiting for an all-clear, because the alarm has lost all meaning of danger, becoming more like the joke told to you over and over by your grandfather every time he sees you, funny at first, but more irritating every time you hear it..
From an inadequately equipped facility, which was built many years ago and is now showing the strain of constant use, to constantly backed up plumbing, to failed air conditioning, to dead batteries in the thermostats causing air conditioning failure, to the improper cleaning of the bathroom, to no toilet paper on the weekends because staff didn’t know its location, to finding maggots strewn throughout the garage for some unknown and unfathomable reason, to…
Well, you get the idea…
These are but small symptoms, of a much larger problem. The disregard of the well-being of the client.
Not intentional in most instances, the intent of most involved is good-willed, not evil. But self-preservation, in no small measure, plays a role in many.
Institutional in no small portion, because “that is the way we have always done it..,” meaning no re-visiting of policies for effectiveness, and continued applicability.
But there it is in a nut-shell, nonetheless…
Not all of the staff here are infected with it, but is seems to be contagious. And it is definitely chronic.
After my working several years in the Social Services Provider role, I am now returned to a client role, my experiences giving me a certain leg up on my fellow residents. An understanding of the responsibilities of the provider is one of them.
This isn’t a call to close the facility, by any means.
It isn’t non-salvageable, by any measure. However, more than a Band-Aid is in order.
And, with an almost all new staff, and staff shake-ups in progress in their facilities almost organization wide, now is the time to take a considered and measured effort to make new policies and guidelines in these critical areas, before the bad habits take hold. And taking time take a REAL inventory of facility capabilities, and accurately assess the performance of PATH in their responsibilities to the clients. This is a much needed first step.
This is my clarion call to the City Council, and the members of public at large. Please take notice, please help those of us who are most vulnerable help ourselves.
It may be chronic, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a cure…
I just hope that it doesn’t harm me and my service animal, or any of my 75,000 brothers and sisters sleeping on Los Angeles County streets tonight, because it can kill.
Thank you for your ongoing support of the homeless community, and specifically for your assistance to me as I transition from homelessness.