By: Jessica DeStefano
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 at 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 the 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 do care and do an amazing job of preparing a meal each night. But I invite any of you reading this to visit the ASL parking lot and see if you could spend even one night there. Yes, it is more than what many cities have. However it is a slum.
Every night about 60 homeless people come to the shelter for the evening meal. It only sleeps 45 on floor mats, which means about 15 must be locked out after the meal. This overflow must sleep somewhere. If they come back into town it means almost for certain being ticketed by police for loitering or sleeping on the benches or beach. Most of them therefore opt to sleep in the ASL parking lot where there are no bathroom facilities. Even here Laguna police raid the lot periodically, ticketing the homeless and taking the few possessions they have. If they resist they are hauled off to jail in handcuffs even though they have done nothing criminal.
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 already been 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. There are only 60 homeless here. 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 are a ladder out of the pit of homelessness. I have a vision. No, it’s not a dream. It’s a vision, a goal, and one we could reach. We could stop criminalizing homelessness and call upon the golden rule that is at the heart of every one of our religions: “Do unto others as we would others should 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, 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 that, “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 already here that we have neglected. We could make our city something truly to be admired. We could expand the ASL shelter into a place that is a paradigm 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 could attain. All it would take is for it to be Laguna’s goal, too… Laguna’s vision, too.
Local resident Jessica deStefano is an accomplished sculptor and pet portrait artist. Her grandfather, Percy Wise Clarkson, founded the tiny historic American Catholic Cathedral on Park Ave in Laguna. Clarkson built the church from the rubble of the Long Beach earthquake in 1933.