FRESNO, Calif. - A prominent Fresno charity, homeless women, and the transgender community all say they're experiencing a nightmare come true.
Nine women homeless women signed on to a lawsuit against Naomi's House and its parent company, the Poverello House, saying the last place they could go to feel safe is now dangerous because they're forced to shower with a transgender woman.
The Naomi House bills itself as a gentle haven of healing and a safe haven for single, homeless women, but a new lawsuit says it put a lot of women in harm's way in a very vulnerable spot -- the shower.
It says the shelter requires them to shower in groups, and it opened its doors to a person who identified themself as a transgender woman who made lewd and sexually inappropriate comments, and leered at them while they were naked.
"This is the biggest fear they bring up, that you're going to have people who may not even be transgender in bathrooms and settings where people are naked and their privacy rights are being violated," said Peter Kapetan, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the women.
Poverello House administrators tell Action News federal law says they have to treat a person identifying as a woman as a woman -- and there's no way to test whether it's true.
They say they take allegations of bullying or sexual harassment seriously, but for privacy reasons can't reveal what actions they may have taken.
Naomi's House has had good experiences before with at least one transgender woman.
"The staff was extremely accommodating," said Michelle Nastasis, a transgender professional poker player who stayed at Naomi's House a couple years ago. "In fact, we worked out a system where none of the girls would be offended when I went to take a shower."
Nastasis says she got along with some of the women who filed the lawsuit and everybody treated her with respect. She joins them in questioning whether the person accused of sexual harassment is being honest about their status as a transgender woman
Legal analyst Tony Capozzi says the status is protected and the person's claim puts the charity in a tough spot.
"It may be because they're afraid of violating civil rights that they're not doing anything," Capozzi said. "But I think it's incumbent on Naomi's House to do something about this individual that's there - not because (the person) is transgender, but because (the person) sexually harassed other people."
The women say they repeatedly complained to staff members, but were told if they didn't respect the person's decision to identify as a woman, and if they refused to take showers at the same time, they'd get kicked out of the shelter.
"This is like their last safe haven to go to," Kapetan said. "If they're not there, they're out on the streets and like one of them told me, the streets are dangerous here in Fresno."
Leaders in the Valley's transgender community tell us this is a nightmare for them too because if someone who calls herself a transgender woman is sexually harassing people, she put an already marginalized community in a bad light.
Karen Adell Scot, a local transgender advocate, even offered to train Naomi's House employees on how to recognize people just pretending to identify as the opposite gender.
One possible solution is already in place: Poverello House administrators say they added shower curtains about four months ago.
The lawsuit is due for a hearing in August.