The November meeting of the Laguna Beach Business Club was my last as this year’s president. During the course of the year, I’ve been honored to know more intimately the club’s members, as well as search out meaningful speakers to broaden our understanding and involvement within our community. It’s provided a opportunity to view our town against the backdrop of local and larger issues.
Randy Kraft, the marketing and development director for Friendship Shelter, had agreed to discuss issues of homelessness, including the new shelter at ACT V. I had asked Randy to speak because I had uncovered something in myself that I did not like, and I was struggling both to understand and craft a path to change.
In the aftermath of the ACLU lawsuit and the visual expansion of homeless camping on our beaches and parks, I found that my heart had hardened. I’ve always believed myself to be a compassionate person. What had changed in me? Why did I want to turn my face? Why had homelessness become so disturbing?
Was it because my beloved beach and my beloved park had become despoiled? I had worked as part of the planning team for the renovations of Heisler Park as chairwoman of the now defunct Open Space Committee. It was to be an expansion of our “Window to the Sea,” a showcase of gardens, meandering seaside paths and inviting grass areas to be enjoyed by residents and tourists.
When previously disallowed camping became “not-enforceable,” the atmosphere of both places changed. There were drunken outbursts, foul language and defecation on sidewalks. Panhandling increased. The finally-realized new bathrooms became homeless camps.
Even as I wished for a magic wand to make the problem disappear, I recognized there was no single solution.
Built into my own fear base were assumptions that simply turned out to be untrue. The first was that beach camping would be a draw from all over the area. Head counts showed a minor increase, but basically, the issue was one of more visibility than numbers.
A second concern was that if the city set up homeless services — beyond breakfast in the park — our homeless population would increase. Studies have shown that homeless people do not migrate for services. To the extent they move to new areas, it is because they are searching for work, have family in the area, or other reasons not related to services.
I also held a belief that none of them worked, hence another personal irritation: Here are these folks, camped out on the beach, while I toll and slave.
Homeless people do work, and a relatively small percentage of them receive government assistance.
Actually, Friendship Shelter is a working testament that given a chance, the bulk of homeless would prefer to be off the streets. The shelter has a 60-day self-sufficiency program that provides a home, three meals daily, and a wide arrange of support services, designed to help residents develop skills to rebuild their lives.
The Friendship Shelter has taken the lead role in managing the city’s Alternative Sleeping Location for homeless people. The nighttime-only shelter opened two weeks ago with capacity of 51 guests. Bus service stops twice daily — morning and evening — from downtown to the shelter, and reports indicate an average number of visitors at 48. The city was able to re-institute the law prohibiting nighttime sleeping on public property, and the encampments seemed to disappear overnight.
While my initial anger at the ACLU and what I considered to be a vicious attack on a city, I find that the focus that the suit created has opened new dialogue and future thinking.
I am often struck by the lines of an old Joan Baez song, “There but for fortune, go you, go I.”
On this week of Thanksgiving, I am ever grateful for my job, my home, my family, my friends, my community — and the luck of the draw that lets me continue to live and be a part of Laguna Beach.
CATHARINE COOPER lives with a treasured window to the sea. She can be reached at email@example.com