Community comes out to discuss homeless facility

It seemed as if all of Laguna Beach descended on City Council chambers Tuesday night.

About 200 residents, some even standing outside City Hall if they couldn't find a place to sit or stand inside, were there to listen and provide input on a proposed facility that would house 40 chronically homeless people, many of them mentally ill, in Laguna Canyon.

What ensued was a complex discussion that touched on other issues, such as reports of transients harassing residents, visitors and business owners, and other projects proposed for the canyon. Tuesday's meeting came on the heels of the City Council's approval of a 30-unit artist live-work project on Laguna Canyon Road.

Friendship Shelter, a Laguna Beach agency that helps homeless adults achieve self-sufficiency, is working with Irvine-based Jamboree Housing Corp. on the proposal.

The two-story building would house the most vulnerable people, those who have a disabling condition that prevents them from living independently without ongoing support, Friendship Shelter Executive Director Dawn Price told the council.

The building would sit on a city-owned plot at 20652 Laguna Canyon Road between the Pacific Marine Mammal Center and the dog park, adjacent to the Alternative Sleeping Location, according to a city staff report.

The ASL, an overnight emergency shelter, has provided meals and a place to sleep for 45 homeless people since 2009. The ASL would continue its operation but would provide space for 35 people each night.

A greater number of homeless are using the ASL as a permanent home instead of a temporary shelter, Price said.

"Many were in the shelter, sleeping on a mat every night," Price said. "They are our target clients. We know them. You know them."

The project could potentially save $1 million a year by easing the burden on a variety of public services, Price said, suggesting a 81% drop in police calls and 67% drop in emergency room use. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development endorses permanent supportive housing, she added.

Dog park advocates and mammal center officials are concerned about the proposal.

Mammal center staff say that the proposed facility would encroach on their property, bringing residents too close to federally protected, endangered sea mammals in rehabilitation, according to a letter from Keith Matassa, the mammal center's executive director.

Center officials say their permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could be in jeopardy because of the close proximity

Dog owners fear for their safety and have noticed an influx of homeless loitering around the park. Residents are worried that the proposed facility would entice more transients to Laguna.

Transients reportedly routinely harass customers near Hobie Surf Shop, the downtown store owned by lifelong Laguna resident Mark Christy.

"Of all the times I've spoken during a council meeting, this is the hardest because I'm speaking in opposition to people I love," Christy said. "I love the people in Friendship Shelter and their mission."

But Christy has become concerned for the safety of his family, employees and customers because of what he called "vile" behavior from transients downtown.

Christy said homeless people he talks to say they come from other states, including Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and Texas.

"They say, 'I heard about Laguna, how it's friendly, safe and warm,'" Christy said. "We are all caring, empathetic people. If this was about helping 40 people, there is no debate.

"Let's keep ASL viable. Let's make it more viable — open the shelter during the day. Let's not forget there's an undeniable, significant detrimental effect on our small town."

Former Laguna Beach Mayor Jane Egly favors the housing facility because she said it would take people off the streets.

"If they have a home that is theirs, we will see less of them," Egly said. "They will become more like citizens like we all are. We were all attracted to Laguna Beach and stay at Laguna Beach because it's an ideal community. They may be ill; they're not stupid. The problems I've been hearing are people don't have a place to go all day and all night long."

The project will cost an estimated $11 million and would be funded entirely by private money. Council members asked whether federal or state funding requirements could preclude shelter and Jamboree officials from denying services to homeless from outside Laguna.

Jamboree has developed 7,000 units in California, including 1,300 in Orange County, and has never sold a property it owned, said development director Michael Massie.

But Councilwoman Toni Iseman pointed out that the proposal for Laguna Canyon carries more units than some of Jamboree's other housing facilities, noting the 25 in Anaheim and 29 in Midway City.

"There are so many moving pieces to this," said Iseman, who along with Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen formed a subcommittee to investigate permanent supportive housing. "I would like to find out information on where there is a successful program with 40 units with dual or triple diagnoses that we are presenting. There needs to be some role models. You don't just put a group [together] without that way of diluting the anxiety and the angry behavior."

Iseman also wondered whether there could be rules requiring residents to take medications.

Whalen supports the permanent housing concept but said the proposal needs more work.

"I believe that providing services to homeless individuals is a positive thing that results in a better overall community," Whalen said. "I think it will enhance the overall public safety and is something we should facilitate.

"There are a whole host of issues. It's so conceptual in nature that you can't say I support it or I don't support it. I think Friendship Shelter and Jamboree Housing [officials need to] meet with community members and come back with a proposal that has more meat on the bones to see if it can be acceptable to a consensus, a majority of those looking at it."

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