A plan for permanent housing for chronically homeless people who are mentally ill is generating much discussion around town and some pointed letters to the editor.
Even so, only about 35 residents showed up at a meeting held last Friday at the Neighborhood Congregational Church, organized by the project’s leaders to address concerns prior to a City Council hearing on the matter, scheduled for April 22.
The $13 million joint proposal comes from Laguna’s Friendship Shelter and Irvine’s Jamboree Housing Corp. Their plan is to build a 41-unit complex on city-owned land in Laguna Canyon on the site of an overnight shelter where local homeless people receive dinner every night and where 45 bed down. Known as the Alternative Sleeping Location, it’s sandwiched between the dog park and the marine mammal rescue center.
Taking these people off the street and providing them support tends to result in less emergency medical care and demands on law enforcement, according to advocates. The shelter is managed under contract by Friendship Shelter, which helps homeless adults achieve self-sufficiency in its own group facilities.
Perhaps true opponents are holding their fire, because only polite questions that centered largely on logistics were put to a panel of Friendship Shelter executives and board members and a Jamboree Housing representative.
People wanted to know about the cost, funding, parking and transportation needs, backers and consequences in case of emergencies.
No one overtly opposed the units or professed the fears expressed by Michael and Kimberly Fowlkes in a letter to the Indy, published on April 11. In the correspondence, the couple decried the proposal for its potential to erode the canyon’s small-scale development and described a “nightmare” of trespassers, trash, fights and chucked cigarettes that have proliferated since the homeless shelter opened.
Friendship Shelter Executive Director Dawn Price addressed head-on a sentiment that has resurfaced for years in debates about providing homeless people services: that building housing will draw more homeless people to Laguna. “We are not a magnet and statistics show that we are not a magnet,” Price insisted, adding, “we will not see an increase in homeless people if we build this.”
Chronically homeless people don’t move easily, and they view relocation in much the same way as people with homes, she said.
Experts believe permanent supportive housing is the best practice in combatting chronic homelessness, she said.
Such a facility will provide safe housing to people unable to live independently without support. These are individuals with one or more mental disabilities that typically trigger their chronic homelessness.
“Our vision is 40 furnished units and a manager’s unit,” she said, as well as continuing to provide the local homeless population with a place to sleep overnight and shower, as the temporary shelter now does.
Mark Miller, Friendship Shelter’s programming director, answered a query about what will occupy residents during the day and how they will get medical care.
“It’s not about forcing them to live a certain way,” he said. “It’s about providing them with the resources and opportunities to determine their own welfare.”
Support, in this instance, means providing residents access to services for their mental and physical health, Miller said. Residents will decide how they spend their time, just like anyone else, he said.
Most residents’ welfare improves in such an environment, based on the experience of similar facilities in Orange County and elsewhere, including one in Portland, Maine.
Board member Doug Anderson believes the proposed housing will alleviate the issues raised by the Fowlkes. Currently, police are called to deal with each incident, he said. But the facility will have 24-hour management on site, and they can partially address people sleeping under the trees, he said.
What’s more, the experience of a similar project in Maine has been that the new residents don’t like disruptive behavior around their home anymore than anyone else and that will be “40 more sets of eyes and ears looking out” for anyone disturbing their peace, he said.
“We need to take care of this one way or another,” said local resident Carol Reynolds, who has gotten to know some of the homeless population and supports the effort. She admits, “it’s an immense project to take on.”
But it’s not impossible, said Helen Cameron, the founder of Homes, Inc., the county’s first permanent supportive housing provider, which has since merged with Irvine’s Jamboree.
An Anaheim project that opened two years ago for 25 homeless people with a mental health diagnosis has been so successful that only one person has since left, Cameron said. “All of them had serious mental illness, so we know it can be done. We know how to do this.”
Board member Barbara McMurray sought to quell a backlash that has erupted among canyon residents over a flurry of developments. “We are different from the other two in that we solve a problem that already exists,” she said. At the temporary shelter, people sleep in the parking lot, creating “Laguna’s version of skid row,” she said.
If a housing facility is approved, McMurray predicted the parking lot will no longer serve as an encampment because management and residents alike will monitor the site. “If you support us, we will be part of the solution,” she promised.