Tempers flared during the second of three community forums hosted by the Friendship Shelter last week to discuss their permanent supportive housing proposal.
Thursday’s meeting targeted the project’s impact on Laguna Canyon, but at the outset many of the 45 or so canyon residents who showed up seemed more interested in opposing its location in their neighborhood than in learning about any benefits it might have.
Representatives from the Friendship Shelter and their partner, Jamboree Housing, first described their plan to house 40 mentally disabled chronically homeless people in efficiency units where they would receive supportive care. They referred to the success of similar programs and expressed their confidence that housing 40 of Laguna’s most vulnerable homeless residents would not create problems but solve them.
As they then began to field questions, earnest inquiries were increasingly interspersed with jeers and rhetorical jabs, raising tensions and interrupting the dialogue. The residents began firing sometimes blatantly belligerent questions, often not pausing for answers.
Why was the project located so far from the town’s amenities and police protection? How is this being funded? How could they be sure to house the local homeless? What’s your definition of rural and small scale? What about the spike in service calls at the temporary shelter? Have you walked the canyon at 9 p.m. to see what it’s like? What about our safety? What about substance abuse and smoking?
Many seemed to view the forum as an opportunity to vent their frustrations with both the disruptive behavior of transients in their neighborhoods and the construction of a building they believe will defy the small scale and rural character promised by the area’s specific land-use plan.
Friendship Shelter’s staff, board members and partners did have answers, but they had little chance to get a word in edgewise.
The tide turned when a resident questioned the rationale behind the proposed canyon location.
“This is a hot topic,” said board member Marshall Innins, an acknowledgment that seemed to diffuse some of the anger and constructively engage the residents grouped at tables in the Woman’s Club.
The city owns the land, and other sites, such as the property now owned by Glennwood House, are prohibitively expensive, Innins said. “We did not pick the location,” said board member Bob Mister.
One man suggested another city-owned property close to public transportation and amenities: the former site of a planned parking garage behind city hall. Another urged Friendship Shelter officials to “take a stand” and request the village entrance parcel as a substitute location since plans to put the garage there were abandoned. Applause punctuated his comments.
It was a point participants kept returning to as promoters of the permanent supportive housing project moved forward in outlining its merits.
Innins agreed to pursue the suggestion. And board member Doug Anderson suggested the residents should inform city officials of their preference for the former village entrance location, which was still envisioned as parking garage when Friendship Shelter was searching for a site.
“They’ve heard you,” said Dawn Price, Friendship Shelter’s executive director, noting that since canyon neighbors publicly voiced their concerns about transients roaming their neighborhoods the city arranged a meeting between Friendship Shelter, the police chief and other officials to discuss safety issues in the area. As a result, police will step up patrols in canyon neighborhoods and install a security camera in the Canyon shelter’s parking lot, Deputy City Manager Ben Siegel said in a separate interview.
Despite some hostility, some meaningful dialogue did occur. The project’s supporters managed to delineate the difference between two populations: the local homeless people, known by name to shelter workers, and the transient homeless with no roots in town.
The former group boils down to the 40 most regular users of the temporary shelter, “and that’s who this project is for,” said Mark Miller, Friendship Shelter’s programming director. They are the ones with mental disabilities who truly need the proposed supportive housing, he said.
Price said she believes a subset of the transients who pass through town briefly may be causing the problems for canyon neighborhoods and downtown businesses.