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Commentary: ACLU lawsuit against Laguna Beach is misguided

After substantial investment in services for homeless individuals, the city of Laguna Beach must again defend itself from a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU’s circuitous logic for suing the city twice in six years is irrational and prompts the question: When will enough be enough for the ACLU?

Before the opening of the city’s Alternative Sleeping Location (ASL) on Nov. 12, 2009, Laguna’s beaches and parks were overwhelmed by long-term encampments of homeless individuals.

After more than two years of debate and reports from a task force and a citizens advisory committee, the city opened the first year-round municipal homeless shelter in Orange County.

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Literally overnight, people in need were accommodated in facilities, essential services were provided and the encampments disappeared.

The current ASL is still the only one of its kind in the county, and it has operated continuously since replacing the initial facility in June 2010. The new ASL has room for 45 people. It provides a heated and cooled building with restrooms, showers, meals, laundry facilities, sleeping mats, blankets, computer access, a safe environment, a case worker to assist with connecting people with other services to assist them and separate van transportation to and from downtown Laguna Beach.

The facility has ramps, doorways and restroom facilities designed to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. It is open from 5 p.m. to 10 a.m. seven days a week, 365 days a year. The cost to operate the facility and provide services is $350,000 a year. To date, the ASL has provided over 93,000 bed nights to those in need.

The community worked together to establish the ASL and still pulls together for its operation. The city invested $325,000 initially to create the facility, and the former Resource Center contributed $60,000.

The Friendship Shelter operates the current facility under a contract with the city; Mercy House provides advice and guidance on operations; Mission Hospital donates lunches; the Laguna Food Pantry provides food for breakfast; evening meals are provided by local churches and community groups; and the county provides grants and mental health workers when it can. There are many others who volunteer to make this facility a success. The ASL truly is a model of community partnership.

Given the lack of facilities throughout Orange County, the city knew that it could not house all those in need. The capacity of the ASL was determined with regard to historical estimates of the size of the homeless community in Laguna Beach. Criteria were established to first house those with local ties to the community — people who had gone to school in town, lived in town or had relatives in town.

When the ASL first opened, those who had been long-term homeless in town were also considered to have local ties. Those with local ties are allowed first access to the facility at night, and a lottery is held for the remaining beds. Bus passes are usually available for people who are new to town and not able to be accommodated in the ASL.

The city has also helped more than 70 people connect with their family and friends for support. It participates in the Homeless Court program to help people resolve outstanding legal issues that may be barriers to future employment and self-sufficiency, and has provided painted parking meters to collect funds for homeless services. In short, Laguna Beach has acted responsibly and in good faith to address its community needs.

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When the ASL facility opened, we thought the ACLU would be supportive and, if the program were successful, as it has been, tout it as a model for others. Instead, the ACLU is now saying that a sleeping location with services and amenities is not adequate and that Laguna Beach is obligated to fund and provide permanent supportive housing — basically apartments — for all disabled homeless individuals who happen to be in or coming to town.

The city has discussed a permanent supportive housing facility with the Friendship Shelter. It is not yet clear if there is an appropriate site for such a facility in Laguna Beach, but the Friendship Shelter should be recognized for its success in housing 21 people in permanent supportive housing projects in southern Orange County since 2014, most of whom came through the ASL. The Friendship Shelter has also secured funding for an additional 23 units that could open later this year.

In conclusion, Laguna Beach is already providing extensive facilities and support services to assist homeless people and deserves the ACLU’s recognition for the city’s unparalleled efforts on behalf of homeless individuals. Instead, the ACLU has filed an ill-advised lawsuit. The city believes that its policies and actions fully comply with the law, and the City Council has unanimously decided to vigorously defend the city against the lawsuit.

JOHN PIETIG is city manager of Laguna Beach.

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