Hearing Sparks Broader Discussion of Homelessness

After listening to passionate testimony for housing chronically homeless people who are mentally ill, City Council members on Tuesday expressed varied levels of support for the concept, but delayed making a decision.

Instead, they asked the project’s sponsors to conduct more community outreach and gather more data before returning with a more detailed strategy.

Michael E. Newman, homeless for several years since a bust for operating a medical marijuana collective, recently found work as a telemarketer. He sleeps at Laguna’s homeless shelter and dreams of escaping poverty.

Michael E. Newman, homeless for several years since a bust for operating a medical marijuana collective, recently found work as a telemarketer. He sleeps at Laguna’s homeless shelter and dreams of escaping poverty.

But the hearing did reveal a growing impatience with unsavory actions attributed to members of Laguna’s homeless population in downtown, in parks and in North Laguna and canyon neighborhoods. Merchants and residents alike urged city officials to address the problem and the council agreed, asking staff to look into solutions.

“We clearly have an issue with respect to the current policing and management of homeless activity downtown, so we as a city need to figure out a better solution now,” said Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen, voicing the Council’s shared concern. Council member Steve Dicterow asked for stepped up police patrols downtown and called for hiring another officer at the next budget hearing.

City Hall virtually hummed with about 200 people, who permeated all available space in the Council Chambers before also filling every inch of the adjacent walkway. They were anxious to take part in the hearing on the permanent supportive housing project proposed by a partnership between Laguna’s Friendship Shelter and Irvine’s Jamboree Housing Corp.

In a show of hands, the audience was nearly evenly divided between the project’s advocates and opponents.

Friendship Shelter Executive Director Dawn Price made the case for a plan to house 40 of “the most vulnerable” homeless people on the city owned site in Laguna Canyon that is the site of the current overnight homeless shelter.

The shelter is sandwiched between the Pacific Marine Mammal Center and the dog park, and leaders of both raised concerns about the project.

As currently staked, the project is but 10 feet from the center’s rehabilitation pools and would jeopardize a federal license from the national marine fishery service, said PMMC’s executive director Keith Matassa.

Price believes architects can address Matassa’s concerns, and he conceded that a reconfigured structure might provide the needed buffer.

Exploring options prior to the hearing, city officials asked Friends of Laguna Beach Dog Park president Cindy Waldman whether patrons might relinquish a piece of the dog park, which incited a swift backlash and 500 signatures in opposition. Even so, dog park supporters took no position on the project, said Waldman. As long as the proposal leaves the park’s boundaries intact, “we will be good neighbors,” she said.

Price later responded that they have “no intent to go into the dog park.”

In explaining the concept, Assistant City Manager Christa Johnson emphasized that no formal proposal exists, and that the staking at the site is only conceptual.

The hearing’s intent and the unorthodox request for story poles prior to submitting a plan is to involve the community, Price said. “It’s working,” she said, gesturing to the audience.

Four groups expressed varying degrees of opposition to the proposal.

Dr. John Hamil, an officer of Laguna Canyon Property Owners Association, said members don’t oppose the project’s intent, but the onrush of new development in the canyon. He argued for a development moratorium until a canyon-wide plan is developed.

Resident Michael Fowlkes, of the canyon’s Castle Rock neighborhood, vehemently objected to the plan. Since the temporary shelter opened, he’s observed vagrants littering, setting up camp, exposing themselves to children and behaving violently. He claimed that the proposed project would further jeopardize their idyllic canyon existence.

Local resident and business owner Mark Christy, voicing the concerns of fellow merchants, said the proposed housing “will exacerbate an untenable situation downtown.” He described employees and visitors intimidated by vagrants, and attested to a feared magnet effect after speaking with one from Arizona who described being sent to Laguna with a bus ticket and pocket money.

Tamara Campbell, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, said her members are divided: some believe the proposed housing will be a magnet to a far-ranging homeless population, while others believe it may be a solution to the problem.

In the interim, measures are urgently needed to improve conditions downtown where transients intimidate passersby and relieve themselves in public places, she said.

Another 29 people testified on similar points.

Resident and developer Bill Witte pointed out that all good-weather communities face the challenge of a homeless population, but that permanent housing is part of the solution. “This will improve the situation dramatically,” he said.

Peggy Profetta offered a case in point – herself. She said she was self-supporting until a mental illness beset her at the age of 40. A divorce left her homeless and un-medicated. But since moving into the Midway City supportive housing facility Jackson Aisle, near Westminster, where she is on meds and supported by a team of professionals, she is thriving and stable.

Council members largely agreed to the benefits of the housing, but saw too many unanswered questions and asked the partners to continue building consensus among neighbors, educate the community and  gather more data on existing conditions and similar projects before submitting a more detailed plan.

Council members Kelly Boyd and Dicterow both expressed frustration with a lack of services for homeless people provided by neighboring communities. “We’re the only ones doing what we’re doing,” Boyd said.

“We need more help from the county…this is a regional problem and not just a Laguna Beach issue,” said Dicterow.




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