A temporary shelter for the city’s homeless population needs to be user-friendly or it might not get used at all, according to a near-majority of the city’s Advisory Committee on Homelessness.
The committee approved at the Sept. 9 meeting 10 items that would make a designated site more hospitable. A sub-committee is working with city staff and the two council members on the Advisory Committee to provide input on the list that includes making the shelter a 24-hour facility with services that would make the site — wherever it is — more likely to attract the homeless.
“There are things the city can do, but for the 24 hours and amenities suggested somebody is going to have to step up to the plate,” said Mayor Kelly Boyd, who sits on the advisory committee with Councilwoman Toni Iseman.
Costs to establish the nighttime site were estimated at more than $200,000.
The vote for the list was 11 to 1, with the two City Council members and staff participants abstaining. Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rose Hancock voted “no.”
“Our business community does not want a shelter in town,” Hancock said. “People are concerned that a shelter will just attract more people.
“We are open to programs to help, but not to a shelter.”
Provision of a designated sleeping site would open the way for the city to reinstate laws banning illegal overnight camping on public property such as city beaches and parks. The lack of a site was the basis of a lawsuit filed against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Many believe the lawsuit and subsequent settlement, in which the city agreed to rescind the local anti-camping ordinance, encouraged more homeless to come to Laguna.
Boyd said he walks from Main Beach to Diver’s Cove at least four times a week.
“I counted 72 homeless people from Thalia Street Beach to Diver’s Cove one Sunday,” Boyd said.
Ways to assist the homeless and lessen the adverse impact on residents, businesses, tourist attractions and visitors was the focus of the 10-point list prepared by Advisory Committee Chairman Ed Sauls after the Sept. 1 City Council meeting, where Boyd and Iseman proposed an area by the old Sewer Digester — the large yellow building in the city employee parking lot — for a designated sleeping site.
Other locations had been considered and eliminated for various reasons.
However, public and police outcry and the limitations on services due to the constricted area prompted the committee to reconsider the site, with ACT V getting the most support, but not unanimously.
“I am not seeing ACT V as a satisfactory place,” said committee member Arnold Hano. “It gets pretty cold out there.”
The list recommended defining “shelter” as cover, a protection, a refuge and a haven.
One major hang up for the ACT V recommendation is that it cannot be used in the summer months — the very months that the city would prefer to have beaches and parks attractive to tourists.
Churches could be asked to shelter the homeless at night, but reportedly find it difficult if not impossible to provide a daytime site, officials said.
Hano prefers the area behind City Hall. He also believes that personal and hygienic services are essential to the success of any site.
“I believe no bare-bones shelter is likely to be used and if it isn’t used, we have failed,” Hano said. “Meals, storage for belongings and showers are non-negotiable for me.”
Lockers or duffel bags to be checked in and out, limited in number and size, as well as meals served at a city-sponsored location (not Heisler Park), and showers (not on Main Beach), were included on the committee’s list of recommendations — all believed to be ways to entice the homeless out of parks and off beaches.
The committee would prefer the shelter to be open all hours; barring that, it wants it open more than just from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. so services could be provided.
If the original site by the Digester, which could not be used for round-the-clock operations, is selected, the committee recommended opening it at 7 p.m. to avoid conflict with tourist attracting activities at the Laguna Playhouse and on the Festival of Arts Grounds. Playhouse and festival officials opposed the parking lot site.
The committee said the site should have temporary box planting to screen it.
Supervision of the site is high on the committee’s list. The feeling is that the homeless have to feel safe, otherwise they won’t use the shelter. A site supervisor should have a separate accommodation, perhaps a shed, but be inside, not outside the site, which might be fenced off or at least screened by planting.
The accommodation might include baskets or lockers to store sleeping bags, etc.
Also recommended: Have the Laguna Relief and Resource Center, another nonprofit or social service agency control the site and contract one or two local supervisors who would have more interest and a better attitude than security guards and cost less.
One source might be the food bank clients of the center who are looking for work or qualified and supervised homeless people, according to the list.
Case managers and mentors will also be needed.
The Resource Center’s new case manager and the Orange County Behavioral Specialist will help achieve the committee’s goal of providing an opportunity for every homeless person to get help, live sober and drug-free and link to available housing.
Community volunteers could be trained as mentors by current volunteers and professionals. Among the other services suggested by the committee:
An education program for the homeless, nearby businesses and residents;
Private funding to provide some recommended services.
The committee also supports the continued use of the Homeless Court in Tustin and would like to see it hold sessions in Laguna.
Boyd is a big advocate of the court, which helps the homeless resolve legal issues.
One question was on the list: Should locally known homeless be given preferential treatment, such as day use of the shelter site, storage privileges or services connecting them to county assistance, job placement and Project Homecoming, which unites families?
The final recommendation was to have city staff monitor the temporary shelter for three months, including interviews with the homeless and their recommendations and review the project with the council.
The recommendations will be refined by sub-committee members Dawn Price, executive director of Friendship Shelter; Faye Chapman, board member of the Relief and Resource Center; and Mari Hill, from the county’s Health Care Agency.
“They are providing input to city staff and Mayor Boyd and Councilwoman Iseman on alternative locations and ways they think will make it make it likely the temporary shelter will be used,” said Asst. City Manager John Pietig, who represents the staff on the Advisory Committee.
Community Outreach Officer Jason Farris also sits in on the meetings.
The results will be presented to the council at the Oct. 6 meeting.