Without government aid, a group of determined human rights activists opened a second shelter for homeless people in Laguna Beach last week when it rained, taking in the overflow crowd turned away from the city’s at-capacity, year-round homeless shelter on Laguna Canyon Road.
Twenty-five people bedded down in the temporary overnight shelter in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church’s Guild Hall, which will only be open for the next two months when temperatures dip below 40 degrees or it’s raining.
“This is the first I’ve heard they’ve opened it again,” said City Manager John Pietig. “We thought we had a consensus that the alternative sleeping location would address those needs. It’s my understanding that the alternative sleeping location was going to replace the need for the cold weather shelter.”
For years, Laguna’s churches opened their doors to homeless people for overnight stays during inclement weather each winter, rotating the duty until the city opened their own shelter in November 2009 as a result of a legal settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Prior to the opening of what is known as the alternative sleeping location (ASL) in Laguna Canyon, the city aided the churches’ cold-weather shelter by providing a security guard and some supplies through a $7,000 federal community development grant administered through the county. City officials asked the Interfaith Council to disband their shelter after the ASL opened. The city receives about $50,000 now through the same grant to operate the permanent facility, which costs an additional $270,000 annually to operate with the money appropriated from the city’s general fund.
Pietig maintains that the city is accommodating its homeless population by offering space for 45 people a night. The overflow, he said, comes from out of town. Opening more shelters in Laguna would only attract more homeless to the city, he said.
“The problem is there’s not enough shelters in the rest of the county,” Pietig said. “The other cities and the county aren’t doing enough to house those people in other areas, so they come to Laguna Beach. But there’s only so much Laguna Beach can do as well.”
Local resident and homeless advocate Jim Keegan differs with Pietig’s assessment.
“He’s mistaken,” said Keegan, who serves coffee to the homeless every morning at a local park and in 2008 contacted the ACLU about the city’s policies forbidding sleeping in public places. Keegan said there are 105 homeless people who currently frequent Laguna Beach, according to advocates’ calculations. “I would recognize them and know their names.”
Keegan said the ACLU is developing a program to press other cities to open shelters for the homeless. ACLU officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Whether St. Mary’s can offer a homeless shelter is a “complex question,” said Pietig, depending on if the church is complying with regulations regarding land use and entitlements. “It has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “I have to look into it.”
Coordinating with representatives of churches that make up the Interfaith Council, a stalwart group of seven volunteers brought 25 people out of the rain to St. Mary’s last week, who were either part of the overflow crowd outside the city’s shelter or attempting to sleep on the beach. This past Friday, Jan. 7, another 16 people were sleeping at Guild Hall.
The overnight alternative sleeping location in Laguna Canyon can hold up to 45 homeless people a night, who are selected through a daily lottery. If they don’t get in and try to stay in the shelter’s parking lot outside, they risk getting ticketed for illegal lodging by Laguna Beach police or being handed a bus ticket to another shelter in the county, usually the Santa Ana Armory, according to Corporal Jason Ferris, the police department’s community outreach officer. Ferris said from two to 15 people are turned away each night.
“Not everybody in need of shelter can fit in that shelter,” said St. Mary’s Rev. Elizabeth Rechter, also a member of the Laguna Beach Interfaith Council. “We’re taking the overflow to ensure that those people don’t sleep in the cold and the rain.”
“It dishonors Laguna and all that we have to treat our homeless as criminals and leave them out in the rain as we go off to an art event,” said artist Jessica deStefano, a volunteer who helped revive the inclement weather shelter. “I’m glad we’re stepping up to help.”