Commentary: Treat homeless with kindness, not disdain or detachment

We contribute to drought victims in Somalia, earthquake victims in Afghanistan and tsunami victims in Japan. We build schools in Haiti, save children in the Philippines, dig wells all over Africa.

Yet right here it home we shame and stigmatize our own homeless. We shove them out of sight, afraid if we are nice to them we might encourage them. Here in Laguna Beach we even criminalize them. The police routinely ticket and arrest them.

Yes Laguna has an Alternative Sleeping Location (ASL) for the homeless. It is three miles out of town on Laguna Canyon Road. It functions more to get the homeless out of sight and out of downtown than it does to help them or to solve the problems that made them homeless in the first place.

I don't mean to discredit the many wonderful people in Laguna and on the Interfaith Council who care and do an amazing job of preparing a meal each night at the shelter. But I Invite any of you reading this to visit the ASL parking lot and see if you would want to spend even one night there. Yes, it is more than what many cities have, but it is a slum.

Every night, about 60 homeless people come to the shelter for the evening meal. It sleeps only 45 on floor mats, which means about 15 must be locked out after the meal. This overflow of homeless must sleep somewhere.

If they come back into town, they are almost for certain to be ticketed by police for loitering or sleeping on the benches or the beach. Most of them therefore opt to sleep in the ASL parking lot, where there are no bathroom facilities.

Police raid the lot periodically, ticketing the homeless and taking the few possessions they have, even though they have done nothing criminal. If they resist, they are taken away in handcuffs.

I have a vision. My vision is that Laguna could do a lot better than this. Laguna could be the example for the rest of the nation of how to treat the homeless with justice and fairness. We are already an example to the rest of the nation. We've been the subject of a TV show. We could be the example of something truly great.

We could be the answer to the problem of homelessness that the rest of the world is looking for. The homeless in Laguna number only 60. Surely we can do better than ticketing them and hauling them off to jail. We could expand our existing ASL shelter. With all the creative minds and caring people in Laguna we could fill it with programs that would serve as ladders out of the pit of homelessness.

I have a vision, not a dream but a vision, a goal — one we could reach.

We could stop criminalizing homelessness and apply the Golden Rule: Do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

We could follow the Dalai Lama, who says our prime purpose in life is to help others. We could live the teachings of Jesus or Martin Luther King Jr., who said, "Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness."

We could remember we gave the highest honor in the land, the Nobel Peace Prize, to Mother Teresa for her work with the homeless and her assertion, "At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by 'I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me, I was homeless and you took me in.'"

I have a vision. Instead of a parking structure that will bring more tourists and more traffic congestion into Laguna, for a fraction of the cost we could take care of those we have neglected who are already here. We could make our city something truly to be admired and fulfill our promise to be a compassionate city. We could be an example for other cities to follow.

Yes, I have a vision. No, it's not a lofty dream, it is a goal. A goal I know we can attain. All it would take is for it to be Laguna's goal, Laguna's vision, too.

JESSICA DESTEFANO is a Laguna Beach resident.

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