After a long, hot summer, Laguna Beach is suffering from a homeless hangover.
As one of the first cities to be sued by the ACLU of Southern California over how the homeless are treated, Laguna has been grappling with how to accommodate street-dwellers for some eight months now.
The ACLU sued Laguna Beach in December, and in July filed essentially the same lawsuit against Santa Monica — known as a “homeless haven” and for spending more money on homeless services than probably any other city in the state.
The ACLU wants cities to “decriminalize” homelessness, but the organization has ironically targeted the very cities that are trying the hardest to serve homeless people and get them off the streets.
The problem is, just throwing money at a problem isn’t going to solve it. Homelessness is tricky.
As the homeless become more visible, they become less tolerable to the general population. Antisocial behavior escalates; conflicts increase.
Over the summer, with the number of homeless swelling — due to several factors, including the city’s inability to enforce anti-camping laws and an economy that has put more people on the streets — complaints about misbehavior have also risen.
One delightful denizen of the streets — a woman who has been arrested numerous times on charges of public drunkenness and even assault — capped off her summer wing-ding by allegedly pouring a glass of red wine on and into a Mercedes after the driver honked her a warning to get out of the street.
Two letters we published last week detail other “behavior” issues that arise when a city can’t enforce laws designed to ensure a basic quality of life: public inebriation, proliferation of filth and human squalor, and the chaos that reigns when bullies, drunks and social misfits overrun public places.
Parks become de facto asylums; police are the “orderlies,” often running interference for the homeless in their squabbles with each other over minor infractions, like being the hall monitor in middle school.
Since I pore over the daily crime logs for the paper, I’ve noticed this summer a higher number of homeless-on-homeless crime reports (including one woman accusing her companion of pulling her hair); a larger number of complaints about groups of homeless people; and a higher-than-usual number of conflicts between parkgoers and homeless.
The more homeless folks there are in a small community, the worse it is for everyone, not just the housed. It’s easy to take a hard line against these people, as have some of the folks who have written to vent their frustrations and anger.
Then there are the true hard-luck cases that make you realize just how individual their stories are, and just how easy it is to take the wrong fork in the road.
Take the story of the hapless young man who called the paper a few weeks ago after we ran a story about him being arrested on a minor drug charge.
He had a prescription for medical marijuana, but was thrown in jail after he was stopped for not wearing a seat belt, and the officer allegedly found drug paraphernalia in his car.
He spent three days in the Orange County Jail before the district attorney decided they really couldn’t prosecute him since he had a bonafide prescription for medical marijuana. So he was released, but now had another problem: His car had been impounded, and it would cost more than he could afford to get the car out of the tow yard. And his arrest had been reported in the local paper.
Now he was homeless on the street and didn’t know how he would get back to his home state of Wisconsin (or some other northerly state). And his name was linked to a serious arrest, not a good thing in the age of Google. He was obviously scared and with good reason.
I was leery at first, but after listening to his story, I had to admire the guy. He wasn’t a whiner. He hadn’t called the newspaper to rail against the police or complain about his treatment: He simply wanted his name cleared. He wanted to move on and up, and out of the downward spiral that had overtaken him.
He left a rambling but coherent message on voice mail, and I called him back.
I told him I would look into his case and make sure the record was corrected if that was warranted, which it was. I called him again to tell him when the new story would run. I figured that had satisfied him, because I didn’t hear from him again.
Then a week later, as I was perusing the crime logs at the police department, I heard a familiar, rambling voice at the public counter. With the same polite persistence, he was asking about a program he had heard about called Homecoming — a way for homeless people to get transportation back to where they belonged.
He told the officer at the counter that he wanted not just to get home, but to get free of marijuana dependence, which he now realized was chaining him to a life he didn’t want. The officer, kind and sympathetic, went off to see what she could do. I left before the final outcome was clear, but I sure do hope that young man found his way home — and out of homelessness, for good.
CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.