A city task force has found no silver bullet that will cure all of the problems of the homeless in Laguna Beach, but it has prescribed interim treatment while research continues.
The City Council unanimously approved interim recommendations at the June 19 meeting that the Homeless Task Force claimed would better manage the programs and activities that assist residents, businesses and visitors as well as the homeless, until a formal report is made this fall. The recommendations were synthesized from research into programs in other communities and interviews with local care providers.
“This is a challenging issue, an important one,” said Task Force Chairman Ed Sauls. “I am proud of our members. These people have come together with diverse issues and have reached a consensus that includes several different components.”
Task force findings, to date, point to a program of coordinated efforts by police, service providers, local businesses and care organizations, according to the report submitted to the council.
“I think we have taken a good first step combining those who help the homeless with police enforcement, so that it is not just enforcement or just assistance,” Pietig said.
“We did talk to people at the homeless court in Santa Ana, the county health agency and local resources before making our recommendations. They have dealt with this and we wanted to learn from their efforts to put together a good first step for Laguna Beach.”
The Homeless Court is a special court that allows people who are issued citations for behaviors associated with being unhoused — such as camping or sleeping where they are not wanted — to have their cases dismissed if they agree to enroll in shelter programs and get off the streets.
‘Tools’ to alleviate issues
The task force report cites the interim recommendations as tools to help alleviate the pressures on residents and local businesses by inappropriate behavior and activities, including begging and drunkenness in public, by the homeless.
“I don’t get the feeling from the report that you are looking out for the individual homeless,” resident Arnold Hano said.
Police Chief Mike Sellers said the city does have a problem with homeless transients.
“A few years ago, we had a reserve officer who focused on this,” Sellers said. “But he left and the service lapsed.”
At one time, a canine officer patrolled downtown. Signs were posted in store windows, suggesting donations to assistance programs rather than handing out cash to the indigent.
Many of the panhandlers considered themselves free to beg, based on a reported ruling by a Northern California judge that would have threatened solicitation for funds by such benign groups as the Girl Scouts if public begging was outlawed.
The current shortage of officers in the department is a problem — one reason, Sellers said, the recommendation to hire an outreach officer was deferred to the first of the year.
“The command staff will have to get involved or we may use beach patrol,” Sellers said.
Cost is also a factor.
“We are looking at over $100,000 a year with benefits and training,” Sellers said. “The other alternative is to deploy someone from another assignment [at no additional cost].”
Sauls said the appointed officer proposed in the first two recommendations should be a person who has a passion to help the homeless.
“I believe the police have to be part of the mix, but I am not sure they should be the front line,” resident Jim Keegan said. “A number of people would be willing to play this role.”
Recommendations three and four are the province of the Laguna Relief and Resource center, according to Sauls, a founder of the center.
“I have been involved with the center from the beginning,” Sande St. John said. “It started with disaster services after the fire. We supplement food. We supplemented clothing.
“We are there. Some people have no idea about the resource center, but every person on the council has written checks and so have the police and firefighters.”
St. John said the center has a homeless program in place that provides food and showers daily, but no sleeping accommodations except in the cold weather shelters during inclement months.
“It has been reported that police officers were preventing people from sleeping in parks,” attorney Gene Gratz said. “I don’t know if that is true. You may not prohibit transients from sleeping in parks unless you provide an alternative.”
Population figures vary
Estimates of the homeless in Laguna range from 50 to 100. Sellers believes it is somewhere between 50 and 60.
South Laguna resident Michael Beanan said that statistics indicate that one in four homeless is a veteran.
“They are entitled to services,” Beanan said. “Focus on them. Get them out of the [homeless] population. The task force was created by the council in March, at the behest of Councilman Boyd., a downtown business owner who advised the council that the numbers and aggressive behavior of the homeless were on the increase and intervention was needed — for the sake of the city and the homeless.
“I am pleased with what we have accomplished for the short term,” Boyd said. “We are moving along nicely, but I believe we still have a long way to go.”
Task force members include: Mayor Toni Iseman; Dave Sanford, president of the Chamber of Commerce; the Rev. Colin Henderson, founder of Friendship Shelter; Don Black and Faye Chapman, members of the city’s Housing and Human Services Committee; Michael Philips, city environmental specialist; John Pietig¸ assistant city manager; resident Judy Randall, and a county representative.
********** **QUESTION OF THE WEEK
Do homeless people need more help in Laguna Beach? Write us at P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, CA, 92652, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or fax us at 494-8979. Please give your name and tell us your home address and phone number for verification purposes only.