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Hansen: County homeless news is old hat for Laguna

Guests settle in and prepare for the night at the Alternative Sleeping Location in Laguna Canyon.
(Bryce Alderton / Coastline Pilot)

While the Orange County Board of Supervisors last week was approving a first-ever, year-round homeless shelter in Anaheim, Laguna Beach advocates were helping a homeless woman get into an apartment — after 10 years on the street.

The county vote received broad news coverage and congratulations. Officials called it “historic,” “heart-warming” and “the right thing to do.”

The Laguna news, however, was just business as usual and not reported. The city’s emergency Alternative Sleeping Location site has been helping people for six years now, so it’s well beyond the fanfare of altruistic strategic plans.

It took many to coax the woman into a rent-free apartment outside of Laguna: ASL staff, who have known her for years, a local faith leader, along with police outreach officer Jason Farris., all banded together to help.

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“We had someone last week who’s been on the Laguna streets for 10-plus years, and it was very hard for her to accept that placement because it wasn’t in Laguna Beach,” said Dawn Price, executive director of the Friendship Shelter. “Everybody helped her get into the apartment that’s very new for her and very frightening. And we’ll be there daily if we’re needed.”

As part of a continuing effort to place homeless people in housing, Price has been implementing several new activities.

“What’s moving the needle now for us is that we became part of the county’s permanent supportive system in a couple of ways,” she said. “First, Friendship Shelter began providing HUD-funded permanent supportive housing in scattered site apartments. So we rent apartments and then we place chronically homeless people in the apartments, and then support them while they’re in those environments.”

Price said they don’t just give them the keys and say “good luck.” There is extensive follow-up to make sure they are transitioning.

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Also, in late summer, Price’s team started doing formal assessments of homeless people in the ASL using a national model and tooling method called Vulnerability Index & Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT).

Essentially, it gives each person a vulnerability rating, which helps place them accordingly. So far, they’ve been able to evaluate, expedite and place 11 people.

“Those assessments began toward the end of the summer, so that’s pretty quick,” she said. “So to have already placed 11 people right out of the ASL into housing is something we’re certainly celebrating.”

The assessments are based on a face-to-face questionnaire that covers things like health history, drug use, any police arrests, family involvement, financial background and other topics.

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“It is considered the gold standard in terms of figuring out who is the most needy that you’re seeing,” she said. “We’ve been seeing some of the most vulnerable people in the county at the ASL. We knew that all along. We knew even before we had an ASL that we had a lot of very vulnerable people here in [the] Laguna Beach area.”

While this work continues, there have been recent setbacks to finding a more long-term permanent housing solution in Laguna.

The city decided to drop a fledgling plan to build a permanent facility at the current ASL location. Also, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in August against the city, demanding that Laguna provide supportive housing with additional services such as mental healthcare.

While the city fights the lawsuit, it detracts from the daily hard work of actually providing services to the homeless, let alone trying to find a new location.

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Officially, Price hopes to find something in Laguna, but the realities are difficult because of costs and ongoing resident opposition. She took some hope in the example of Anaheim and the Board of Supervisors, trying to learn new lessons for getting these types of projects approved.

“Homelessness has an impact and is a burden on people beyond the homeless community. Everyone has some negative impact from this condition of homelessness, and no one believes homelessness is a good thing,” she said. “We’re learning that we need to listen more closely and more thoughtfully to people who oppose what we’re trying to do and try to learn from those opinions and see whether we can create solutions with a way forward that everyone can support.”

In the meantime, the homeless here continue their routines — except for 11 who have new walls.

Price said it’s always a touching moment when someone gets off the street. One man stood in his new apartment, dumbstruck, and as the team left, he asked, “Is it OK if I close the door?”

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Yes, they said, it’s your apartment now.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.


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