A suspected arson fire at the Laguna Beach United Methodist Church's cold weather shelter for the homeless has heightened concerns about Laguna's population of street-dwellers.
The fire, in the church's multi-use room, caused at least $40,000 in damage and abruptly shuttered the shelter, which will be hosted at another local church until mid-March.
The fire occurred Jan. 31 at about 3:30 p.m., after church employees and officials had left for the day, said Rev. Ginny Wheeler of the church.
The fire was determined to be "set by human hand with an open flame device," said Kris Head, Battalion Chief for the Laguna Beach Fire Department. "We don't know if it was intentional or not."
Police have not identified any suspects, but Wheeler notes that homeless people were at the church at the time of the fire.
She said that the homeless begin to gather at the shelter between 3 and 4 p.m. The cold weather shelter opens at 7:30 p.m., offering a warm place to sleep and a hot meal. The recent spate of freezing temperatures has drawn more to the shelters than in past years.
Wheeler said that at about 3 p.m., when she and church employees left for the day, three people were waiting for the shelter to open.
Wheeler suspects the three were responsible for the fire, but police have not identified any suspects.
"We locked up and left, and three people got into the building and set three small fires on the carpet, and a cart with brochures went up in flames and it [the fire] went up the wall," Wheeler alleged.
One man was severely burned on his face, apparently trying to put the fire out. He was detained by police but determined not to have been responsible for setting the fires, Laguna Beach Battalion Chief Kris Head said in a press statement.
Wheeler said the fire has been a blow to the community activities held at the church, including an art class, Girl Scout meetings and other groups.
The incident has also heightened her doubts about whether the churches are the best place to host the city-sponsored cold weather shelter program, which is housed at three churches over the winter months.
Ironically, Wheeler had gone to the City Council the night before the fire to propose the city create a permanent shelter facility to take the burden off the churches.
The homeless issue was placed on the council'sagenda after a number of complaints from residents and businesses about an influx of "aggressive" homeless people in the downtown area.
The Council asked the Housing and Human Services Committee to look into the issue.
"We've had the cold weather shelter for 12 years, but we're not equipped for it," Wheeler said.
"There's been vandalism, and they [homeless] use the bathrooms for bathing. The churches are not equipped with cameras or security."
Homeless volunteer Don Black says a special shelter facility is not needed.
"We have an emergency shelter — it's at the churches," Black said.
Black — who says he knows all the homeless people in Laguna Beach by name — rejects the idea that there are larger numbers of homeless in the city than in previous years.
Black said the number of homeless people in the city today is about what it was two years ago, according to his count.
"It's not true that all the homeless are migrating to Laguna Beach," Black said.
"Two years ago there were 56 people and last week we counted 61."
Black said he is pleased at the interest in the homeless issue generated by recent press accounts of the larger numbers seeking shelter at night.
"There has been an outburst of help from good people and it has gotten the city's attention," he said.
Black says that meetings have been held on the issue and specific steps are being considered to increase assistance, but nothing has been formalized.
Black also hopes to strengthen the Interfaith Council to include more of the city's 19 churches to work on the issue. Black has also put in an application to sit on the Housing and Human Services Committee.
Despite her doubts about the cold weather shelter program, Wheeler believes it is vital for Laguna Beach.
"The cold weather shelter has saved peoples' lives," she said. "These are people the world has thrown away and it's time the city take it seriously. The fire proves it."