A homeless man and self-taught lawyer last Friday filed a federal lawsuit on his own behalf against the city of Laguna Beach and two officials for cruel and unusual treatment and for discriminating against homeless individuals.
The new civil rights suit filed in Federal District Court in Santa Ana alleges current city policies violate the terms of a 2009 settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization also sued the city, challenging its “no sleeping” ordinance as unconstitutional harassment of homeless people and obtained a three-year settlement that barred such citations. Following the settlement, the city established a year-round shelter for overnight stays.
Nevertheless, Leonard Porto, a computer specialist for 15 years who lost his Corona del Mar apartment and has slept in his car for the past three years, said police still systematically wake him up in the middle of the night with intrusive noises and bright flashlights, repeatedly subjecting him to sleep deprivation and hypothermia.
Porto said he lives in constant fear and anxiety, which he said he experiences at night when he hears noises or is startled by headlights.
“It is well-established law that criminalizing the basic needs of low-income homeless persons is an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment,” Porto claims in the suit. “Sleep deprivation and exposure to hypothermia combined with bright lights is a well-known torture tactic, clearly offensive to ordinary persons.”
The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages and the cessation of violations covered by the ACLU settlement, the ticketing of homeless people for sleeping in public places, for an additional three years.
City Manager John Pietig said he’s aware of the lawsuit but would not comment on it. Corporal Jason Ferris, the police department’s community outreach officer also named in the suit, said he hadn’t yet seen the document.
According to police records dating to 2007, Porto has received one ticket for driving against traffic on Forest Avenue last year, Lt. Jason Kravatz said. He said there is no record of citations issued to Porto for sleeping in his car.
Even though there was only one ticket, which was overturned in county Superior Court, Porto said he was threatened twice with citations for sleeping in his car and harassment continues. Citywide, however, 410 queries were lodged of people “occupying” their vehicles in 2011, according to police records Porto obtained from the department; there was no indication if the occupants were homeless and sleeping in their vehicles. (Even so, 193 illegal-lodging citations, typically issued to homeless people sleeping on private and public property, were also issued by police in 2011, the Indy reported in February, relying on police records.)
“The mental anguish of constant threat of citation, harassment and regular exposure to hypothermia,” warrants a lawsuit for inflicting harm, Porto contends in the suit. “These unlawful practices are so persistent and widespread they practically have the force of law.”
Porto alleges that it is city policy to harass homeless people with citations for sleeping in public even though the city-established shelter frequently reaches its limit of 45 overnight occupants and other individuals have no choice but to sleep outside or go to another city.
“People need to sleep somewhere and the city can’t make it a crime for some persons to sleep,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, the UC Irvine law school dean who joined the original ACLU lawsuit against Laguna. “I think that’s unconstitutional,” he said. “The city either has to provide sufficient beds for the homeless or allow the homeless to sleep there not sheltered.” An ACLU spokesperson said they have yet to investigate Porto’s current complaint.
Depending on the time of year, the average homeless population in Laguna Beach runs from 60 to 75, according to various reports.
According to a city policy titled Project Homecoming, the city will waive multiple misdemeanor violations incurred by a homeless person if one-way paid transportation to another city is accepted. “The city veils this forced travel policy as ‘returning homeless to their family,’” Porto stated. Porto obtained city records from the past two years showing that 26 homeless individuals received one-way tickets to places ranging from San Diego to Key West, Fla., for a total cost of $3,000.
Refusing to sign a waiver releasing the city of all responsibility, Porto no longer uses the city homeless shelter to do laundry, shower or to eat provided meals. But he said he has no plans to move.
“I have a right to live in the neighborhood of my choice,” he said. Becoming a scuba diver 10 years ago solidified his choice to stay in town. As a child, his family moved to San Diego County from Ohio and then inland to La Verne. “I really missed the beach,” he said. “If I go more than a quarter mile to a mile from the ocean for a long period of time, it actually has a negative effect on me emotionally.”
As a computer systems expert, Porto has several nearby clients. “He’s a whiz,” said Mike Dwight, a Laguna Hills web designer, who’s been working with Porto for eight years. “Wanting it done right, we call Leonard. He gets everything hooked up and functioning. He’s honest as the day is long.”
Several times a week, Porto talks with Laguna Beach resident Jim Keegan, a homeless advocate who helped initiate the ACLU lawsuit and supplies coffee to homeless people in Heisler Park. “Some of the things he reads make my head hurt,” said Keegan. “He has stick-to-it-tiveness. He has a wonderful sense of humor and I’m very fond of him.”
Porto said he’s been told he doesn’t meet the city’s 18-month residency or local-ties requirements to sleep at the shelter, requirements he is claiming also violate the city’s agreement with the ACLU. Porto said he moved here two years ago, renting for three months. He has a current city parking sticker, banks locally and for the past two months rented a local post office box. Pointing out that there are no other nearby options for shelter, Porto said he sleeps in his car due to “economic hardship.”
Known for his wits as well as wry humor, Porto said he suffers from a mental illness called reverse paranoia. “I think everybody’s out to help me and most people like me,” he joked. “It’s an incurable condition I’ve been told and I try to spread it anywhere I can.”
Photos by Andrea Adelson