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Opinion

From Canyon to Cove: Handling the homeless issue in a caring way

The Alternative Sleeping Location wasn’t even on the radar in January 2008 when Laguna Beach Police Officer Jason Farris was tasked with the job of handling the city’s hardcore homeless population.

Farris was the first police officer to be given an exclusive “homeless beat,” and he had the luxury, and responsibility, of figuring out for himself how to go about the job. Was the job rousting street sleepers with a baton and moving them out of town, or helping them to get shelter and better lives?

Farris decided to pursue the latter approach, and became a kind of “social worker with a gun on his hip.” He had some notable successes, and some heartbreaking losses.

When I interviewed Farris in March 2008 after he had been on the job a few months, he had already shown a knack for deftly directing those most in need to get help, while gently convincing others to move along and not add to the homeless population that was beginning to swell in downtown Laguna.

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Farris was credited with getting the notorious “Cowboy” Charles Reginald Conwell into a detox program. Conwell had been drunk on the streets of Laguna Beach for some 30 years. After a number of months in a program, he unfortunately returned to the streets, where he was killed in a traffic collision while trying to cross Laguna Canyon Road in January 2010.

In another notable case, Farris learned of a man who had been living in a cave in Laguna Canyon for 20 years, coming out once a month to buy supplies and then going back to his hideout. Since the man had no watch, Farris gave him his own timepiece so the man could meet him for an appointment — a sign of the ability of this officer to do what it takes in a caring and generous way.

Farris made it his business to work closely with the Relief and Resource Center’s homeless advocates before the city set up the Alternative Sleeping Location. Before the city began to take steps to manage the homeless problem, the volunteer-run center was the only avenue of on-demand help for street-dwellers.

The Friendship Shelter serves the homeless but they must first be accepted into its program and agree to remain drug- and alcohol-free, which many are not ready for.

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Tragically, a homeless veteran died in August 2007 after cutting himself on a window to enter the Resource Center facility on a weekend when it wasn’t staffed. Clearly, more resources were needed to help this vulnerable, desperate and growing population.

By the time Farris was given the homeless beat, street-dwellers had become a thorn in the side of residents, retailers and hotel operators, and it only got worse after the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a lawsuit in December 2008 to force the city to abandon a longstanding ordinance prohibiting sleeping on public land at night. It has always been legal to sleep on the city’s beaches during the day. After the city stopped enforcing the public sleeping ban, word got around that Laguna Beach was “open territory” for street-dwellers, and veritable tent cities began to pop up in the parks and on the beaches. And the howls of an outraged public increased.

All during this traumatic time, Farris was in the thick of it, negotiating between homeless people, residents and business owners, and trying to do some good for people who had all but given up on themselves. He dealt face-to-face with the drunks, drug addicts, runaways, mentally ill — all the myriad types of people who end up with nowhere to go but the streets.

Things began to turn around for the homeless after the city opened its temporary nightly shelter at the ACT V parking lot in November 2009, and the City Council enacted a new, carefully crafted law prohibiting dwelling on public land. Forced to accept shelter instead of being allowed to “crash” wherever, Laguna’s homeless are housed, fed and also given some much-needed structure in their lives. The permanent shelter farther up the canyon opened in June, adding a sense of stability.

The homeless are still with us, but they no longer look “homeless,” because they have a place to sleep, regular meals and ways to keep themselves and their belongings clean and presentable. They have been given the gift of dignity, which it seems was the first order of business for Farris in his new assignment three years ago.

And, while the city is no longer a Mecca for homeless people from all over the country, the needs of the “Laguna Beach” homeless are being met by caring people with expertise in the field, staffed by employees of the Friendship Shelter and volunteers with the Resource Center. Out-of-towners are given a bed and a meal for a night and sent to a larger facility in another city.

For his handling of this delicate and difficult three-year assignment, Farris was honored as Officer of the Year in 2009, and applauded by a grateful City Council at a recent meeting, where his replacement was announced. It is a safe bet that the new “homeless” officer will have a much easier time of it than his predecessor did.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

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