An unusual spate of freezing weather has put a strain on the city’s cold weather shelter program.
As temperatures have dipped to zero or below in the area, more of the homeless are taking refuge from bone-chilling cold in the shelters, which are set up in local churches.
“We haven’t turned anyone away yet, but we’re almost at capacity,” said Suzanne Shaw, of the city’s Community Services Department, who operates the shelter program.
“We badly need blankets,” she added.
The shelter has been seeing more than 50 people a night; the norm is about 30 per night, Shaw said.
“It’s so cold that even people who don’t like to use the shelter are there, and we have 20% women, which is very unusual,” Shaw said. “We’re getting ten to 11 women a night. Normally we only get one or two.
“It’s colder than I ever remember in the 13 years I’ve been doing this,” she said.
Laguna Beach has one of the only emergency shelters in the South County region, and Shaw reports that there are “a few more people” than usual from outside of Laguna Beach spending the night in the shelter.
“We are the only city in the area that sponsors a shelter,” Shaw said.
The Laguna Beach shelter has been open a total of 26 nights this winter — almost continuously since the official start of the cold weather shelter season Dec. 15.
“We’ll stay open as long as they need it,” Shaw said.
This puts a financial strain on the program, which has a budget of $13,500 for the season — mostly to pay for the services of a security guard to keep watch overnight.
The guard costs $228 a night, so there is enough money for about 60 nights — about 45 days less than the program’s 105-day window of operation.
Don Black, a volunteer with the shelter program, says he’s worried that, due to the higher-than-usual demand, there won’t be enough money to keep the shelter running throughout the winter season.
The shelter accepts people between the hours of 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., and the shelterees must leave by 7 a.m. the next morning. Dinner and breakfast are served, with food donated by the churches and prepared in the church kitchens, Black said.
The Presbyterian Church on Forest Avenue in downtown Laguna hosted the shelter during the first 45 days of the season, and now the shelter is operating in the Methodist Church in South Laguna through Feb. 15.
The Neighborhood Congregational Church on St. Ann’s Drive will be the shelter location for the final 45 days of the shelter season, ending March 31.
Black said that most of the homeless ride city buses or trolleys to the shelter and some are picked up at a gathering spot near the library.
The program is fully staffed with volunteers, Black said, but, “We need money.”
He suggests that those who wish to donate contact the Laguna Beach Relief and Resource Center, (949) 497-7121, to make a tax-deductible donation that will be forwarded to the shelter program.
The program operates from December through March, when the temperature dips to 42 degrees or colder and it is dry; or when the temperature is 48 degrees or colder with a 50% chance of rain, or if the ground is wet or there is a wind chill.
Sometimes Shaw — who determines if the shelter should be implemented — simply steps outside to see if it’s too uncomfortable for people to stay outside all night.
“It’s somewhat subjective,” she said.
Community participation and assistance are key to the shelter’s operation.
Shaw says that when the shelter opened for the first time this year, some basics were lacking.
“We were down to one clean blanket. Then the Calvary Church gave us 80 blankets and a local cleaner cleaned 30 blankets, so by the end of the day we had 120.”
To donate blankets or funds, call Shaw at (949) 497-0304.