Out of the Blue: Homeless shelter is a moral imperative

Many big, and often contentious, events have defined our city for the modern era.

MTV made us a shallow brand. The Montage heralded a new level of upscale tourism. The closing of the Boom Boom Room ended our vibrant gay scene. Skyrocketing real estate profoundly changed the fabric of our city from funky, artsy and eclectic to elderly, wealthy and homogenized.

Now comes a project that will surpass all of these in defining for future generations just who we are as people.

Our very legacy as a generous, tolerant and welcoming community is at stake. It's just one 40-room homeless shelter in the canyon. It won't solve the homeless crisis. But it will make a powerful statement that we don't immunize our community from those in need.

Sure, some of the homeless can be unpleasant, a blight on our bliss. Some defecate downtown and are impolite and hygiene-challenged. They're bad for our sense of safety and well-being. Many are mentally ill. And that can be dangerous.

But we simply don't have a choice. It's doctrine in every belief system — showing compassion to those who are suffering. In the Buddhist faith, this is the path to nirvana. For Muslims it is one of the five tenets to a pious and righteous life. And, of course, in Christianity it's simply God's will.

Taking care of the needy is in our DNA. The Laguna Beach Community Clinic, formed in the late '60s to provide free healthcare to those with no insurance or means of payment, continues to function today as a beacon for thousands of low-income families who come to Laguna — not for the shopping and dining but for the care.

There are 3.5 million homeless nationwide, and we will get our share. So just as we are currently charting our future by addressing increased visits and more traffic, we must come to terms with the fact that the homeless will be a proportionate part of that mix. We provide shelter for sick sea lions and mistreated dogs, rescue dolphins and whales, but do we really want to hermetically seal our town from people less lovely than us?

We are not the only mecca with this problem. Look up and down the West Coast, and you will see a similar homeless migration to Santa Monica, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and San Francisco. It's California, and they are coming.

Plus, as our income-chasm widens and more capital is taken out of circulation by the wealthy, we are sure to spawn more who can't make ends meet.

Let's face it. We're the chosen few who have it well enough to live here. But there are offsets and responsibilities to living in such a perfect place. Other people want to come here too. And that includes the homeless.

They are not some dehumanized subspecies. They are you and me by a couple of degrees of wrong choices, luck or genetics. And the consequences have been dire to everyone who knows them — parents, siblings, children. Nothing you and I can imagine.

We must do more than shelter them. We must provide support services and a start at rehabilitation.

Friendship Shelter does just that.

We also need to develop best practices for dealing with aberrant public behavior. More foot patrols downtown, perhaps. Maybe in the canyon too.

But a more effective program might be a volunteer community patrol. Less cost to the system.

We do it for the little-bitty tide pool organisms. How about a Homeless Docent program, where we learn to engage them by name, get to know their stories and help them better assimilate in public places?

We can also remove the stigma for our children. Instead of injecting them with fear and avoidance, perhaps there is a way to usefully engage them, making them more empathetic human beings. They should know that the world is more diverse than bleach blond groms.

And finally, we must absolutely prevail upon our neighboring communities, by any means necessary, to welcome and support their fair share. And establish the same safety net. Because here, along the south coast of Orange County, many of us are in the top 1% or 2%!

The next few months promise to be another divisive, protracted debate over the direction of our town. It's a watershed event, speaking to a higher purpose than view corridors, traffic circulation, tree preservation and noise abatement. This one gets to the very core of being part of a civilization.

Do we want to be remembered as the city that only rolls out the welcome mat to those whose money we appreciate but pulls it up when we encounter those who have none? I hope not.

Instead, let's be that shining city on the hill that leads by example and demonstrates to neighboring communities that, despite our wealth and privilege, or perhaps precisely because of it, we are compelled to help those who could just as easily, but for the grace of God, be us.

BILLY FRIED has a show on KX93.5 from 9 to 10 p.m. Thursdays called "Laguna Talks." He is the chief paddling officer of La Vida Laguna and a member of the board of Transition Laguna. He can be reached at billy@lavidalaguna.com.

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