Hansen: Has city become immune to homeless crime?

It was a summer-like day at Main Beach on Saturday with tourists filling the boardwalk, children enjoying the playground and a group of hardened homeless men passing around a pipe.

Welcome to the visible underbelly of Laguna Beach.

This scene is not new: blatant drug use, bottles of pills left in the open, loud cursing, fights, littering, loitering, intimidation. These issues are not the result of the recently homeless hoping to turn their lives around, or trying to make it into the Friendship Shelter and get a job.

These are the chronically homeless, the severely mentally ill, the long-term addicts or those who simply don't care.

And if we have trained ourselves to ignore the homeless, then why should we be surprised to see what they do in public?

Some of the worst behavior takes place near the downtown bus station on Broadway Street. On Sunday, at the nearby Post Office, a 71-year-old homeless woman in a wheelchair allegedly was attacked by another homeless man, who was arrested.

"It's no fun listening to it, especially when you're sick," said Dr. William Anderson, who treats patients at the Sleepy Hollow Medical Group, right next to the station.

Anderson has tried for years to get the city to be more creative with the problem. For example, he proposed that the city play classical music, hoping to either diffuse tempers or move them elsewhere.

But seemingly every bus that arrives unloads a new adventure.

Tommy Harris, 72, has seen his fair share of anger and disregard. The soft-spoken city public works employee cleans the bathrooms at the bus station. For 15 years, he has learned to keep his head down and steer clear of trouble. On occasion, if asked, he tries to provide some wisdom.

"I tell them, 'If you don't have any respect for yourself, how are you going to have respect for others?'" said Harris, who lived in Laguna Beach for many years but now lives in Laguna Niguel.

"I pick up everything," he said. "I pick up cigarette butts, I pick up beer cans, I pick up whiskey bottles."

Whenever tempers start to spiral out of control, Harris tries to warn them that the police will come quickly. There are cameras at the bus station, but they can't prevent crime, only chronicle its aftermath.

Plus, the warnings usually don't work because jail can be a reprieve, not a punishment.

"I've had so many guys tell me, 'I don't care if I go to jail,'" Harris said. "I tell them, 'You don't know what you're missing.' And they say, 'Man, I'm not missing nothing.'"

Diana Munguia, however, misses her children. She is a 56-year-old homeless mother of five from Hesperia who said she got fired from her job in February. Admitting to having interpersonal problems, she recently got kicked out of the temporary shelter after an altercation.

"Nobody likes me," she said. "They kick me out every 10 minutes. I have an attitude. They say, 'Diana, don't start.'"

Munguia pauses to try and bum a cigarette off a passing homeless man pulling a beat-up suitcase near the bus station bathrooms. He is in his mid-30s, shaved head, tattooed, wiry thin and furtive. He waves her away.

Munguia shakes her head. "Full sleeve," she says.

When I ask what she means, she says, "heroin addict. See how he's wearing long sleeves to cover up the tracks. He came in last week from Huntington Beach."

It's a very warm afternoon, too warm for long sleeves.

Across the station, a shouting match breaks out between two younger men, maybe late 20s, both tanned and strong. Their words are crude and basic, as if you are witnessing something on a school yard.

A nearby mother covers the ears of her young daughter. People stare but do nothing. One of the men starts walking away, toward Zinc Café, yelling louder and using more expletives the further he gets. Soon, he is standing right next to the restaurant, filled with lunch-time diners.

Aside from disgusted looks, no one does anything. What else can they do?

This sense of beleaguered resignation permeates every downtown business impacted by these types of activities.

"What are you going to do? It's a city problem," said Joni Ginsburg of the Second Chance Thrift Shoppe, which is right next to the bus stop. Store employees are on a first-name basis with many of the city's homeless, who often try to trade clothes.

Meanwhile, the bus station gazebo is popular with the homeless. They like the shade, plus you can smoke freely, unlike Main Beach.

So while the men sit in the shade, smoking and drinking and carrying on, working mothers and the elderly burn in the sun, sitting as far away as possible, waiting for their bus ride home.

No one wants to see or hear the drama around them. They just want to focus on something else — the beach, the art, the food, their home.

Why focus on the negative? It is Laguna Beach, after all. The good outweighs the bad, right?

The drug use, the smell of urine, the violence — those things are the price we pay for something this good, we say.

Besides, if we just accept the problems, they fade away. They become invisible.

Until someday they involve a child on Main Beach, asking what that man is smoking.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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