I was disappointed to find the ACLU in our midst advocating for some of the least fortunate that live here among us in Laguna Beach. More disappointing yet is the reason that they are here.
The complaint filed by the ACLU on behalf of several homeless residents of our city details a litany and a pattern of incidents of harassment. There are incidents where people are repeatedly awakened in the middle of the night with flashlights shone in their eyes, where their meager belongings, including their personal identification documents, are confiscated and often “lost," or where local ordinances are selectively enforced just because they are homeless (and in many cases disabled). If you share a cup of coffee with them any morning along the beach, you may get someone to share his or her experience.
As part of the city’s approach, we have an anti-sleeping ordinance on our books. With no public shelter beds available, the result is that we have effectively criminalized sleeping for this group of individuals who mostly seem to be disabled and probably are among the most vulnerable members of our community.
As public testimony has revealed, the street homeless population is a group that needs help. Our police chief was quoted as estimating that half of the city’s homeless “battle mental illness, most without acknowledging the problem." They include men and women, veterans, epileptics, the old and young, people born in Laguna and those not.
In an attempt to reach out to the chronically homeless, the City Council established a community-based Homeless Task Force, two of whose members are on the council. That group met often and productively over an extended period of time. They made recommendations in January 2008 "” which the council adopted in full. The task force also invited an attorney well versed in the legal issues at hand who "” in a public discussion a year ago with the Task Force "” warned that the city’s enforcement approach to the homeless “invited litigation" and “was a lighting rod" for legal action.
One of the recommendations of the task force was the establishment of a Police Community Outreach Officer, to act as a support resource for the homeless. That was done. I do wonder how this officer sorts out the inherent conflict between his enforcement role and his social service role. What type of outreach he can offer is even more curious given that there are no outreach services available to these people in Laguna Beach.
A second recommendation was the establishment of a multiservice center. With the left hand we offered a public loan of $100,000 from business taxes the city already collected solely for low-income housing efforts; with the right hand the conditional use permit was so restrictive as to make helping the homeless impossible. Private citizens offered about a million dollars to subsidize the effort, but the city’s refusal to let these disabled community members access help prevented the project.
Other recommendations included efforts to reduce panhandling (we installed five parking meters to collect money for the homeless "” $2,500 collected to date per Assistant City Manager John Pietig) and moving the location of the Saturday church-sponsored breakfast from one part of Main Beach to another.
And, of course, one of the recommendations was a follow-up committee to monitor implementation of the approved Task Force recommendations. Despite numerous attempts to establish that group, almost a year has passed and nothing has happened.
I believe that our community has both the resources and, more important, the shared concern to move beyond parking meters and sub-rosa attempts to chase a group of truly needy people out of town. If we can’t help them, who will?
Let’s direct the city administration to quit harassing people and violating their basic rights. And let’s make a serious commitment to addressing the long term needs of our fellow residents. Expeditiously implementing the Task Force recommendations and providing shelter beds would be a good start.
KEATING RHOADS lives in Laguna Beach.