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Column: ACLU lawsuit against Laguna did nothing more than waste resources

A homeless man sleeps on the curb at Mountain and south coast highway in Laguna.(Photo by David Hans
A homeless man sleeps on the curb in Laguna Beach. The ACLU filed a suit against the city in 2015, alleging that Laguna was not doing enough to help the homeless. The suit was recently settled.
(File Photo)

Laguna Beach does not have an official motto, but if it did, it should be, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

The latest example is the Americans with Civil Liberties Union homeless lawsuit that was recently settled with the city. By and large, it was a non-event and for good reason.

Back in 2015, the ACLU filed a class-action suit alleging, among other things, that the city was not playing nice by the homeless.

Remember that Laguna is the only city in coastal Orange County even trying to support the homeless.


It has an overnight shelter called the Alternative Sleeping Location.

It has an extended support program that tries to find permanent housing for the homeless, the Friendship Shelter.

It has various community and religious groups that regularly help the homeless.

By all accounts, Laguna Beach is doing a respectable job under difficult circumstances. The same could not be said for any other city in the county, except perhaps Santa Ana, which receives much more financial support.


So when the ACLU filed its suit, everyone in the Laguna homeless community shook their heads. The collective response was basically, “What now?”

It turns out the answer was “not much.”

I carefully read the 16-page settlement. Half of it is boilerplate legalese. The other half has about 20 or so agreements. And most of them are minor or already in place. Things like:

At the ASL, there should be a refrigerator for medications. There is — since 2009.

There should be continuing staff training for Americans with Disabilities Act issues. There is.

There should be electrical outlets for disability devices. There are.

There should be bathroom rules posted. Check.

The settlement seemed less like a class-action lawsuit compromise and more like a standard operating procedure document.


Laguna officials clearly were unhappy with the exercise.

“Though we are pleased with the outcome, the money and time we’ve spent over the last three years defending ourselves against the unfounded allegations in this lawsuit would have been better spent elsewhere,” said Laguna Beach City Manager John Pietig, who rarely gets ruffled. “We are ready to move on and put this behind us.”

The main result of the settlement is that it codifies what was already in place. The operator of the ASL, the Friendship Shelter, will have to litter the place with notices — not unlike the office break-room covered with fine-print announcements.

“The agreement outlines that the city will continue certain policies, programs and services already in place and will take certain additional actions with regard to homeless individuals, particularly with reference to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the operation of the Alternative Sleeping Location,” City Attorney Phil Kohn said in a statement.

There were very few new requirements made in the settlement.

A city ADA coordinator needs to be assigned.

The van that shuttles homeless people from Main Beach to the ASL location in the canyon — again an unprecedented benefit — needs to have an ADA lift. The city purchased one.

In a pilot program, the ASL will have to designate up to five beds for non-locals. Historically, people who use the ASL need to have a Laguna connection.


Also, there will be three hours assigned for new daytime drop-in services for laundry, showers, assistance, etc.

In addition, the ASL will have to provide no less than three ADA-compliant private or semi-private sleeping areas for those who need it because of mental or physical disabilities. This requirement will be reevaluated after 150 days to see if it’s working. It was agreed that it probably would decrease the overall number of beds available to help people.

The Friendship Shelter has three rooms allocated in its Coast Highway location for this purpose, if needed.

The remaining terms, again, were either minor or already in place.

For example, in a somewhat bizarre requirement, one or more of the City Council members has to write an op-ed piece for the Orange County Register saying that the city confirms its commitment to ending homelessness in Laguna, supports the county’s 10-year plan and encourages other cities to do the same.

No word on whether council members have to raise their right hands when they make this pledge.

For its part, the ACLU maintains that these agreements are necessary because otherwise, nothing gets done.

“This settlement creates a system for ensuring that people experiencing homelessness who also have disabilities can benefit from Laguna Beach’s homelessness program,” said Peter Eliasberg, chief counsel and Manheim Family attorney for First Amendment Rights at the ACLU SoCal, in a release. “This means people will no longer be shut out of services on account of their disabilities.”

The problem with this position, however, is the homeless in Laguna were not turned away at the ASL because of disabilities. In fact, the ASL has had proven success with the disabled.

“Our largest program today is our permanent supportive housing program, where 85 disabled individuals who have had the experience of long-term homelessness now live in their own apartments with ongoing supportive services provided by our staff team,” said Dawn Price, executive director of the Friendship Shelter. “Nearly a third of our housing tenants began their journey at the ASL Emergency Shelter.”

Each night at the ASL, there are 45 people getting free sleeping accommodations, showers, hot meals, clean laundry facilities, warm blankets and a case worker to help them with services and resources. It costs Laguna about $400,000 a year to do this.

Now, I’m sure it will cost more.

But will the new paperwork help house one more homeless person?


David Hansen is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at