There is said to be two sides to every story.
In Laguna, there are always at least five and often the debate brings a better solution to a problem.
At the Sept. 1 City Council hearing, 27 folks voiced their opinions on a proposal to provide a nighttime sleeping area for the homeless in the city employee parking lot, which they opposed for a variety of reasons, some of them realistic, some optimistic and some downright pessimistic — but all delivered with conviction.
It was the hardest, although not the saddest, story I have ever written. As Councilwoman Jane Egly said, “What we heard tonight was all over the place.”
Unlike the aftermath of the 1993 firestorm, the mudslides and the 2005 landslide, the community was not pulling together. Emotions have deafened ears.
It broke Councilwoman Toni Iseman’s heart, and it wasn’t the homeless who broke her heart.
“We have faced so many problems in the past and have come to good solutions,” said Iseman, who was appointed with Mayor Kelly Boyd as a nonvoting, city representative to the Advisory Committee on Homelessness.
The only thing everyone seemed on to agree on was that something had to be done, but practically no one agreed on the extent of what and by whom.
“People are coming at this from very different perspectives,” committee Chairman Ed Sauls said
The committee reviewed some of the different viewpoints at their meeting Wednesday. Iseman and Boyd differ from the rest of the members, because they are elected to represent all of the residents and business people in town.
And Iseman made her position clear.
“We have a problem with the homeless, in addition to the homeless problem,” Iseman said. “I feel like we are talking about a group that is not having a negative impact on the city. We are not addressing what is happening on the beaches and in the parks.”
The homeless population has at least doubled in recent months — over the longtime count of between 50 and 60 — and the newcomers are seen by many residents as more aggressive and less restrained in their bodily functions, Iseman posited.
Businessman and resident Mark Christie has seen a major shift in the homeless population.
“These new people have no connection to Laguna — they didn’t become homeless here, they didn’t live here — they are a different breed,” said Christie.
His customers and the staff at his two Forest Avenue stores are telling him they are afraid and they are not coming back. He takes the threats seriously.
“I think this has more impact than the fire or the landslide,” said Christie, who no longer walks his dog in Heisler Park.
Police said incidents serious enough to make the police log have increased.
“A lot of people are afraid,” James Hall said.
He suggested that taking the time to talk to the homeless would reduce the fear factor.
“People who are interested in actually becoming educated and really learn more about the homeless should come to Coffee,” Barbara McMurray said. “Jim Keegan does it. Don Black is usually there. Often The Rev. Colin Henderson is there and I occasionally go, more often now that my children are back in school.”
Keegan was instrumental in interesting the American Civil Liberties Union in Laguna’s homeless, which resulted in a lawsuit on their behalf to claim the right to sleep on beaches and in parks unless a designated site was provided. Black organizes the cold weather shelters in Laguna for the homeless.
Henderson founded Friendship Shelter and advocates a permanent residence with access to services, although he recognizes a short-term solution must be achieved to alleviate anger and fear.
Iseman advised the committee that people are scared and they feel their fears are being discounted.
“Toni’s was the only voice of reason at the meeting,” said Laguna Beach Taxpayers Assn. President Martha Lydick, Iseman’s political polar opposite.
Many of the homeless are angry at what is going on, said the Rev. A.J. Beau.
“They are trying to police themselves.”
The atmosphere at the committee was less-fraught than the council meeting, possibly because only 15 members of the public spoke and that was after the committee had debated recommendations that appealed to the diverse audience.
Sauls asked for and got support from the committee for three primary goals:
Eliminate camping or living on the beaches and parks.
Make the opportunity available for every homeless person to get help, live sober and drug free, and link to housing.
Provide a multipurpose residential center based on “Housing First” with services for the chronically homeless.
The residential center is the long-term goal, the first two are short-term. The committee put ACT V back on the table as a sleeping site, with the possibility that it could be a 24/7 facility with food service and storage.
But no one even asked why anyone would want to stay in a parking lot all day, wherever it is, rather on the beaches or in the parks.
“The designation of a sleeping area is intended only to allow enforcement of an anti-sleeping ordinance,” committee member Oakley Frost said in a report from his sub-committee. “Amenities such as showers and or lockers, or access to social services might be desirable and may be added in the future, but the inability to furnish them at present cannot be an excuse for failing to designate an area for sleeping.”
Committee member Arnold Hano disagreed.
“I don’t see that a bare bones approach will make [the site] used,” Hano said. “We have to have storage facilities. I also believe we have to have showers — people complain about their smell — and there should be food. We need to focus on a place that is likely to be used.”
And he didn’t much care for ACT V — nor did canyon resident Gordon Conley.
“It’s always push the people into the canyon,” Conley said “I don’t want 100 people camping in the canyon with fire season coming.”
An immediate focus on the short-term problem is not a substitute for the long-term solution, but finding a way to minimize aggressive anti-social behavior by some of the homeless in public and tourist-attracting areas will help regain community support for a long-term solution, Frost said.
The site selection is the council’s job, not the committee’s — including possible sites outside of the city limits — nor is it necessary to provide sleeping arrangements for those who don’t want them or those who are recognized troublemakers, according to Frost’s report.
An Eden for the homeless has been elusive. The committee has looked at numerous sites and every one of them has drawbacks. ACT V was originally discounted because of specific problems: getting to and from it, colder temperatures in the winter and displacement of the homeless when Festival Season rolls around and the parking lot has to be available by Coastal Commission decree.
“If anyone has any suggestions, we will listen,” Iseman said.
Sauls presented a list of 10 items, new to the committee, that would make a temporary site more likely to be used, he said. A committee will be appointed to refine the list before the October council meeting.
The list is posted on www.lagunabeachcity.com.
BARBARA DIAMOND can be reached at (949) 380-4321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.