Homeless for 14 Months, WeHo News Publisher Ryan Gierach Fought Shelter's Brutality
WeHo News publisher Ryan Gierach documented the hundreds of bed bug bites on PATH resident Dave McFaddin, pictured, who ended up needing 10 hours of surgery.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
The food was terrible, the men said. Never mind that it was free. Or that they were homeless, and beggars can't be choosers. The grumbling among residents at the PATH L.A. shelter — People Assisting the Homeless — at 340 N. Madison Ave. in the Rampart area might have gone on forever had Ryan Gierach not come into the mix.
Gierach is the publisher, editor and founder of the spunky little West Hollywood community blog WeHo News. He is a journalist and, two years ago, was an addict. "I was drinking way too much," he says. "The stress of publication was getting me down. I was putting my husband through school at the same time. Trying to sell ads and report and write." He checked into rehab. "I had no income. No money. I was a real broke drunk." He became one of the estimated 73,000 homeless people in L.A.
After rehab, he moved into a small room at PATH. "I was trying to redo WeHo News from a homeless shelter."
But when word spread that he ran a newspaper, shelter residents began bringing him their complaints. He discovered not so much sanctuary but a place ruled by dysfunction and distrust.
During his 14 months as a secretly homeless man, Gierach posted some 584 articles to WeHo News. He blogged about the decomposing body found in a Cadillac Escalade on Gay Pride Sunday, the gay vote for president, a service dog mauled by pit bulls and a bird with West Nile disease. He did not blog about his living situation.
Yes, he was reluctant to tell his 18,000 weekly readers that he was homeless. West Hollywood is a small city filled with wealth. People are, he says, quick to judge.
PATH looks great on paper. That's partly why Gierach and his husband, Marcus Fant, chose it. What started in the mid-1980s as a humble drop-in center in an apartment in Palms is now a family of nonprofits whose mission is to end homelessness by helping people "find employment, save money, secure housing and empower their lives."
Its private donor list includes actors Kristen Bell and Samuel L. Jackson, City National Bank, Hilton Hotels, Northrup Grumman Corporation and Rolex.
PATH operates five Southern California shelters, where a person can live for up to six months and tap into veterans programs, job training, personal finance workshops and more. There's even a hair salon at the "groundbreaking" PATH mall at the Madison Avenue shelter, as well as a legal assistance center, pharmacy and health clinic.
Big money flows through this empire. PATH's real estate development pipeline — in partnership with private developers — is valued at $90 million. In 2011, PATH's revenue was $8.3 million, most of it from taxpayers.
PATH's glossy brochures show smiling homeless people looking appropriately vulnerable but brave. Many of the homeless people at PATH's L.A. shelter, located next to a freeway embankment and a razor wire–surrounded parking lot, however, weren't smiling. Gierach concurred with the 56 other men at 340 N. Madison Ave.: The food was "inedible."
That was just the beginning. Gierach and others claim that PATH has withheld food, threatened to expel residents for failing to be neat and neglected chronic bed bug infestations that sent a resident to the hospital with severe, life-threatening infections.
West Hollywood has been supplying PATH with public money for 15 years, but as City Commissioner James Palmieri asks, "Are better practices being put into place? Why would they have to? They've not been questioned for ... years."
This year, the city gave PATH $334,220 to serve West Hollywood residents. The contract requires PATH to "ensure three (3) nutritious meals a day." But sitting in his West Hollywood office nine months after he moved out of PATH, Gierach recalls waking at 5:30 a.m. as house rules dictate. The men would head down to a hearty breakfast of hard-boiled eggs — and water. A piece of melon. "They're responsible for feeding men, full-grown men," he says.
Some days there'd be butter with no bread. "It took months of requests to get bread." Or cereal and milk, but no bowls. Or bowls would show up, but there'd be no spoons, only forks. Or cereal with no milk.
"Sometimes there'd be no breakfast." The kitchen would be locked. Or so little food it was gone in a snap. "It was comic if you take it all together. Because of the jaw-dropping looks of the newcomers," Gierach says. "It was a running joke."
One note passed to Gierach from former resident Paul Quach said the fruit had "films of mold."
At first Gierach bought his own cereal and milk, but it was quickly stolen from the fridge. So he'd shlep his laptop to a church at Fairfax and Fountain avenues, where the priest let him work all day on WeHo News. "I just began storing my food at the church and eating there."
But, he says, "You wonder what happened to breakfast?" Gierach alleges that employees who run PATH's day-to-day operations are to blame.
At one point, rumors swirled though the shelter that a 40-pound ham had gone missing, and angry residents throughout the building began chanting "Where's my ham? ... Where's my ham?" Says Gierach, "The ham incident was the best."
He alleges even more serious abuse troubles behind the friendly walls at PATH. An employee, he says, locked a female resident and her young son in a room for four hours, "because they were creating a commotion." The woman, he says in his old-fashioned way of speaking, had to "urinate in her drawers."
Gierach was working hard to keep the widely read WeHo News afloat, even as online competitor WEHOville came on the scene. He was, he realizes, leading a double life. "I was hobbing and nobbing. Speaking to county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Congressman Adam Schiff. Then I'd go back to my homeless shelter. It was surreal."
" 'I interviewed a congressman today,' " he says he'd tell shelter mates. "I know they didn't believe me."
He was up by the crack of dawn, out by 7 a.m. to the church or the library, then back before the 9 p.m. curfew. He'd sit in his room with the lights off and text his homeless husband, three doors down: "Hey Marcus. I'm here."
Then he'd crawl under the covers, reading with his tablet device in black-out mode. People would peer through a window in his door to see if he was back. "Every night," he says. "To keep me up on the latest dastardly deed."
Gierach is 55 years old, lean, tall and neat, with close-cropped, gray hair. He was in his mid-30s, freshly washed out from majoring in history at UCLA, when he learned he had HIV. He was addicted to crystal meth. The '90s were his "lost years." After he tested positive in July 1997, he decided he would rather spend his remaining time "being Ryan rather than someone else's idea of Ryan." Gierach became a journalist, then a blogger. In 2005, he founded WeHo News, an online hard news and culture publication with a community focus.
With relish, he tells a story about taking down a West Hollywood City Council candidate, who, he says, lied about a law she was proposing. At a public ceremony, he followed her with his video camera, asking, "Who did you talk to? Who did you talk to about your bill?"
"It was fucking wonderful," he recalls. "I was called a misogynist. People said I had a bias. Yeah, I got a bias. I'm biased against people who run away from cameras." He grins. "Needless to say, she got creamed."
In his new role at PATH, fellow residents told him about broken urinals, broken air conditioners, moldy showers, raging bed bugs, overflowing toilets. Busted refrigerators that caused food to go bad, people claiming food poisoning. The kitchen had no hot water. Neither did the showers.
Gierach awoke one morning to see the word "FAG" scrawled in black marker on his door. When he called LAPD to report the hate crime, he alleges, shelter associate director Tzenni Bah Garcia refused to let officers inside. Jeremy Sidell, a spokesman for PATH, would not address that allegation, writing in an email, "When possible crimes occur, they are reported. It's not uncommon for law enforcement to be on our premises."
Finally, last July, Susie Shannon, executive director of the homeless advocacy group Poverty Matters, brought her concerns about PATH to the city of West Hollywood. Her clients occasionally wind up at PATH, and at least 10 complained to her about conditions there. Lack of food came up repeatedly. Sometimes people would donate baskets of fruit and vegetables. Staffers told the shelter residents, "That's for breakfast tomorrow," Shannon tells the Weekly. But when "tomorrow" arrived, the fruit and vegetables were missing.
She was told that staffers were "berating" homeless clients during mandatory Monday house meetings, conducting invasive locker searches and ignoring sexual harassment among the closely housed residents. And then there was the "day pass" controversy over passes PATH rewards to residents who save money. Day passes let them stay out past PATH's curfew to, say, visit family without losing their bed. "The case managers would hold on to the money for you. In order to get a day pass, you had to give them your money," Shannon says. "As an advocate this is outrageous. I was horrified."
Some of her former clients told her they were pressured to serve as "informants." "Though you'll never see it on the beautiful brochures PATH prints out to ask for money," Shannon says. "On the one hand, they do a lot of good. On the other hand, there's a public trust that's been violated. You give them money, thinking that people are being treated the way the brochure tells you. But that is so far from reality."
In retrospect, it was the letter on his bed that got to Gierach. It was a small, stupid thing, this letter. Four months into his stay, Gierach came home to find it.
" 'Memo. From Leonard Williams, Case Manager,' " he reads now, from a scan in his computer. "Infraction. Cleanliness of your room." Three infractions, and you're out, the rules say.
"So I'm homeless. I have very few possessions, just a little bit of clothing," he explains of his neat room. He continues with the letter: " 'You will need to see me in the morning before you exit the building. ... You have been told numerous times of keeping your room in a neat and orderly manner. ... Failure to continue of being non-complaint [sic] in this manner will result in being place [sic] on a Behavioral Contract which could lead to be exited [sic] from program.' "
Gierach went crazy at the indignity, the injustice, the bad grammar. The letter, he discovered, had been intended for other guys. But Gierach says senior case manager Williams decided that maybe all the homeless could use a reminder.
"It was placed on every single man's bed," Gierach alleges. "Then everybody panicked, because they had to stop by his office before 8 a.m." Pause. "Turns out they didn't." Another pause. "He wasn't there before 8 a.m." He laughs — a loud, explosive laugh.
After the letter, it was war. Gierach complained his way up the chain of command.
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Williams, however, held the power to assign chores to the residents. "It's done arbitrarily and according to how well he thinks of you," Gierach claims, with a wry smile. Certain select guys got the easy chores, such as "wipe off the dining table" or "dust the common areas."
But, Gierach further alleges of Williams, "If he doesn't like you, you get the worst job. You're scrubbing toilets." Gierach says he and husband Marcus were given toilet duty — for four months. Sidell, the PATH spokesman, did not directly deny his allegations, saying only, "Sorry, we don't track specific client assignments. We have also since hired a professional cleaning service."
The sparse food and weird punishments weren't the worst. The bed bugs were. On Sept. 20, 2012, Gierach emailed management about John Wallace, in men's cubicle No. 11, who "went to the hospital with at least 75 [puss-filled] sores covering his arms and legs." His sheets and covers had to be "gathered up and discarded."
Then bed bugs appeared in Marcus' room. He was transferred — to a room with even more bed bugs, Gierach alleges. "Crawling all over the walls," he says. "Even worse." Marcus woke Gierach in the middle of the night, crying.
"Go and stand in my new room," Marcus emailed associate director Garcia, "and look at my bedding. ... You can see them plus the fresh blood stains on my comforter."
Clients began resorting to home remedies, spraying Lysol or bleach cleaners on their mattresses and sheets. Poverty Matters' Shannon recalls that one guy tried a barrier of foot powder around his bed.
On a recent day, city commissioner Palmieri, accompanied by PATH resident Dave McFaddin, sat down with Gierach and the Weekly to detail the shelter's infestation. McFaddin is 51, pale and compact, gaunt but affable.
"Take a look at his arms," Palmieri says. McFaddin pushes up his sleeves, reconsiders, mutters, "Oh hell," then removes his hoodie entirely. His arms and torso are covered in hundreds of bed bug bites. Most are bright red and oozing blood.
"And this gentleman suffers from HIV," Palmieri says as Gierach snaps pictures. "This makes me so angry."
McFaddin fishes around in his pocket. He extracts a plastic zip-top bag. There's a bed bug in it. "He's dead, but I brought you one," he says. "And they're big suckers."
McFaddin taps his phone and brings up a photo of his mattress. A thick swath of bed bugs is clustered under the mattress label and along the seams of the black plastic cover, like sticky, reddish brown moss. "The R.A. almost puked," he says, referring to the residential associates who run day-to-day operations at PATH.
Gierach recalls taking a big, loud, aggressive role during the mandatory Monday meetings. He'd ask reporter-esque questions, demanding data, dates, plans for the future.
Eventually PATH's CEO, Joel Roberts, arranged to visit. "He showed up and said all sorts of nice things," Gierach remembers. Roberts said he grew up in an orphanage in Hong Kong, and that serving the homeless is his mission. "The fact that he operates a very large transitional facility in Los Angeles speaks for itself," Gierach admits. "It's a big deal."
Facing a flood of grievances, Roberts formed a commission — the PATH Shelter Clients Commission, made up of five residents and chaired, says Gierach, "by yours truly." They were to poll shelter residents and suggest improvements directly to Roberts. Instead, Roberts sent in PATH's director of community outreach, Courtney Kanagi, a "positive, cheery woman who wants to help make our stay better," Gierach says. "She was appalled that we weren't given bread."
Two days later, a full breakfast arrived: cereal, milk, bowls, bananas, oatmeal, eggs, toast, butter. They sent in a coffeemaker and a can of coffee. The guys lived large — for all of two weeks.
Emails from July 2013 obtained by the Weekly show that the city of West Hollywood knew about the allegations and problems. In the emails, Poverty Matters director Shannon forwarded to West Hollywood social services manager Daphne Dennis a statement from a PATH employee referred to only as "the whistleblower." The whistleblower noted, "There wasn't enough food" for the homeless, "and they were hungry" and "were being eaten alive by bed bugs, and there [sic] case managers were rude and didn't give a shit."
The employee also claimed, "Those who weren't working toward securing permanent housing" were "kept around for spying and reporting on other clients." Security, the employee said, was "treating clients like they were prisoners."
"Are we not suppose [sic] to help these people?" the employee added. "Isn't that our mission?"
The next month, in August 2013, city commissioner Palmieri met with Joel Roberts shortly before West Hollywood's Human Services Commission and Social Services Division meeting to decide how much city funding to give PATH. "[Roberts] and one of his donors came and they spoke and spoke and spoke," Palmieri recalls. "I simply said, 'Is an egg and a cup of water a nutritional meal to you?' They were shocked. I told them about the cornflakes [without milk]. I said, 'This is what you're serving, do you know that?' He was shocked."
The city hit PATH in the pocketbook: "We cut them," Palmieri says, by $38,036. "And they had actually asked for an increase of $75,000 or $100,000."
He sighs. PATH assiduously meets its numerical goals — 270 "bed nights" are provided each month for West Hollywood residents. And Palmieri wants to be clear: He is not looking to get rid of PATH. But he wants them to "take care of the problems. To stop denying that they exist."
It is a balmy Friday evening when Gierach heads back to the shelter for the first time since he moved out. Taking first a bus and then the train, he remembers something he experienced at PATH: fire drills in which the employees, he alleges, lined up disabled residents in wheelchairs at the top of four flights of stairs. How was that anything but a disaster, during an actual fire?
Asked what it was like to have these men anoint him as the complaint department, he laughs so loud that passengers on the bus peer at him. "I wasn't thrilled at being appointed."
But, in part, he appointed himself. "I'm drawn toward conflict," he admits. Every day, he'd hear about "the dramas of people who are in a predicament beyond their control, acting out in anger and resentment against other people in a predicament they can't control." He'd try to remind himself: "I'm there to get out of that fucking community."
Gierach's first big step in that direction was in October 2013, when he found a small office at the French Market Place on Santa Monica Boulevard. Leaving PATH in the morning was a blessed relief. The 45-minute transit ride from the Rampart area allowed him to read the paper on his phone and "awaken to the possibility that I could get the hell out of this place." Tougher was the commute home. Making sure he had bus fare. He might close a $6,000 advertising deal at WeHo News but go months without any income.
"When you're combatting major depression and the stress of trying to build your business without resources? Huge stress," he says. "Huge!"
At times he lacked even the $1.50 Metro fare; he walked an hour to an event he was covering in a different part of town.
Arriving now at the PATH shelter, Gierach sidles up to a guy sitting on the ground near the main entrance and says, "Hey, buddy. How you doing?"
"Looking for a place to camp?" the guy asks. His name is Chris, a 45-year-old ex-drummer who suffers from seizures, heart problems and anxiety. Chris lives in room No. 15. He is intimately familiar with the bed bugs, so he keeps his window open. "I know bed bugs don't like cold. That's what they told me." But that doesn't work. He lifts his pants leg to reveal dozens of bites.
Chris has been watching a disheveled pile of clothes on the ground, and soon the owner of the pile, a transvestite named Scotty Merman, returns. Merman was recently kicked out of PATH — after he threw out his mattress filled with bed bugs, he says. He hurled it off the side of the building, watched it fly down like a kite.
"It's horrible in there," Merman says. "Everybody's up all night scratching. It is infested. A trillion, million. Who knows. A big number."
Even the sleepy-eyed night security guard weighs in about the infestation. "There was a gentleman who came in the day before," the guard says. "He only lasted four hours. He couldn't take it."
But when Gierach chats up two more men, one bristles: "Without PATH we'd be on the street. We're lucky to have what we've got."
On his way home, Gierach folds his long legs into the train car seat. "Most of them are so grateful to have warmth, food and a shower that they will overlook most anything. They're not gonna raise a fuss," he notes. According to the night guard, Merman threw out his mattress partly because he mixed up his medication. "If that's really what happened? How dare they," Gierach says. "Is that any way to treat someone with mental illness?"
In person, PATH's soft-spoken chief executive, Joel Roberts, has a calm, unflappable, Zenlike air. When he laughs, it is as soulful and inward as a sigh — a polar opposite to Gierach's wild, manic laughter.
Roberts and one of his executives, chief program officer Katie Hill, are in the conference room at their administrative offices, where a sign admonishes, "Tuck in your chairs on the way out. Thanks!" The offices are downstairs from the homeless men's dormitory. But here, the bathrooms smell like lavender. The ones in the clients' area don't have toilet paper.
Roberts and Hill answer critics smoothly. To claims of constantly broken urinals and air conditioners, Roberts says, "Things break. Is it constantly? I don't think so."
Regarding possible employee theft, Roberts is unaware of any ham being stolen.
Of guys in wheelchairs lined up at the top of steep stairs for a fire drill, "The Fire Department specifically told us we should not be transporting them ourselves," Hill says. "We should wait for the firefighters."
But an officer at Los Angeles City Fire Station No. 6, which services PATH, says that staff members are initially responsible for getting wheelchair clients out. "All the people who are able to walk need to assist," the officer says, regardless of whether they are employees or clients, "just as a general human decency."
As for the food, Roberts argues it "is not a systemic problem at all." The breakfast, Hill points out, is continental. "We can't afford to do a full breakfast for everybody every day. We're not a hotel. Our food budget is very small."
Indeed it is. West Hollywood gives PATH just $4,077 a year for food — a couple hundred bucks more than is budgeted for cleaning supplies. And less than a call to the bed bug exterminators, which rings up at $6,000.
By far the bulk of the city's money — 75 percent of the budget, or $250,665—goes to PATH employee salaries and benefits. Roberts' $175,000 annual salary is partially funded by West Hollywood.
"But it's not a money issue," Roberts insists. "The breakfast does not have to be hot. We provide fruit, cereal, milk, protein. I don't know what to say."
Looking back on his meeting with Gierach and the other clients, he sighs and folds his hands in his lap. "I've been doing this for 17½ years," he says. "We get generations of people.
"So I went in there wondering, is this a troublemaking group or not?" Gierach's group, he decided, was a mixed bag. "If they're saying breakfasts are bad, that's an easy one." He told them to take pictures. Prove it. He gave them his email address. "Because I'll call up that cook and tell him, 'What the heck's going on?' And I never got anything."
He met with the group once. After that, he says, "It fizzled.
"And that's a good thing. It means they're happy," he adds. "That's what we're about. We're about hurting people."
"Helping people," Hill corrects.
Roberts laughs. "Thank you. Yeah, that doesn't sound right."
There have been small changes at PATH since Gierach left last June. Assigned chores are gone, for example. But the bed bugs leave management metaphorically scratching their heads, while clients literally scratch theirs. "People go out and come back and bring them in," Hill says. It's a revolving door for bed bugs as much as it is for clients.
Roberts says, "The Ritz-Carlton can't even eliminate bed bugs," and neither can PATH.
Roberts claims not to have heard about client McFaddin, who was hospitalized with hundreds of infected bites. Most likely, Hill says, "It's an exaggeration."
But it is not an exaggeration.
In February, suffering from violent chills, a cough and a fever, and covered in bites, McFaddin was escorted by his shelter mates, via public bus, to County USC Medical Center. Records obtained by the Weekly show that USC placed him in isolation because he had picked up two bacterial infections — pneumonia and potentially fatal streptococcal spinal meningitis, an uncommon inflammation of the membranes surrounding the spinal cord.
It was a different strain from the invasive meningococcal disease that has sickened eight people in L.A. County this year, killing three — all gay men.
In the consulting physician's report, a notation reads, regarding the source of McFaddin's strep infection: "possibly lungs from pneumonia, possibly from skin from bed bug lesions."
McFaddin is HIV-positive and had a damaged heart valve when he entered PATH. McFaddin says his doctors were careful not to say the meningitis came from the bites. But McFaddin says, "It had to have come from somewhere."
During two five-hour operations, surgeons removed two infected vertebrae, replacing them with hardware and performing spinal fusion. Weeks later, McFaddin cradles a bloody-fluid-filled plastic drainage egg sitting in his lap. IV lines snake out of his arms and torso. He has a brace around his neck. The risky spinal surgeries saved his life but left him with potentially permanent motor problems in his hands.
He broke down in tears the day he saw the pictures Gierach took of his bites. He recalls unzipping his hoodie and showing his case manager, Sylvester Coleman. "He kept saying, 'Oh my God,' and apologizing for it. But you can apologize until the cows come home. You need an exterminator in there. It's like the 16th-century black plague! This is the 21st fucking century and you can't get rid of some parasite bugs?"
Despite the ordeal, McFaddin is looking on the bright side. "Much as I have my moral outrage at PATH, I'm happy to be alive," he says. "I could be dead or a quadriplegic." He does not want to go back to PATH if he can help it. "Ugh," he groans. "Critters all over!"
Roberts points out that by PATH's mission statement, it is doing well. "It's about how are we going to get you into an apartment," he says.
Last year, PATH put 2,452 people into permanent housing. Since inception, more than 10,000. "Even Ryan," Hill says. "We got him an apartment."
"That's actually insulting," Gierach responds. On June 1, 2013, he and his husband signed a lease on a small one-bedroom in West Hollywood. PATH "tried to help. But the effort and financing was all Marcus' and mine. We found it," he says, "entirely independent of their efforts."
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