Churches Pick Up Homeless Overflow

Homeless people cue for a hot meal at the temporary shelter in Laguna Canyon shortly after it opened.

Two churches in town resumed offering cold-weather shelter to homeless people being turned away from sleeping at the city’s temporary shelter on Laguna Canyon Road.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Neighborhood Congregational Church are rotating every three weeks during the winter to take in from 10 to 20 people.  The overnight capacity for the canyon shelter, a modular unit, has been set at 45 people.

At the behest of Don Black, a local volunteer who has helped homeless people in Laguna get needed services for more than 10 years, St. Mary’s started taking in the overflow from the canyon shelter on Dec. 15, midway through a wetter-than-usual rainy season. NCC stepped in six weeks later.

By taking up the slack, says NCC Pastor BJ Beu, the churches are benefiting the city.  “If not, the homeless are going to go back to the beaches, they’re going to go back to doors of the merchants,” he said.  “There’s going to be more public intoxication and drunkenness and urination and defecation.”

Prior to opening a year-round shelter for homeless people late in 2009 as part of a settlement over an ACLU lawsuit, local churches had offered overnight cold-weather shelter for years.

Up until mid-December, the shelter allowed over-capacity overnighters to bed down within a fenced perimeter. The city is now holding fast to the modular unit’s indoor capacity and prohibiting outside sleepers.

“We tried having people sleep outside,” said City Manager John Pietig, “but it was difficult for the Friendship Shelter to manage.  Additional staff had to be added.  It was also more difficult to ensure that people did not behave inappropriately or did not access alcohol or things like that.”

The Friendship Shelter, a transition program for qualified displaced men and women, oversees the canyon shelter in partnership with the Laguna Relief and Resource Center. Capacity is restricted by floor space for 45 mats, said Dawn Price, the Friendship Shelter’s executive director. The $153,000 modular unit also provides three bathrooms with showers, a kitchen, laundry room and computer room.

Homeless people at the shelter are also technically expected to have some connection to Laguna Beach.  About 50 homeless individuals spend their days at the shelter, according to Donna Valenti, the Resource Center’s executive director, and from 60 to 65 are there for every evening meal, provided by volunteer local church and civic groups.

Before the churches stepped in, anyone in the overflow group was given a bus pass and typically directed to the Santa Ana Armory.

But Black wouldn’t have that, according to St. Mary’s pastor Elizabeth Rechter.  “Don Black will not rest if there are people still without shelter,” she said, adding that he personally drives turned-away individuals to cold-weather shelter at the participating church every night.  “He’s really taken it upon himself to care for these people who are the overflow,” Rechter said, adding that Black doesn’t think the Santa Ana Armory is “civilized.” Rechter agrees that sleeping outside Laguna’s canyon shelter is preferable.  “It’s safe.  How can you fall asleep when you don’t know if, once you do fall asleep, somebody would take advantage?” she said.

Beu believes the capacity restrictions stem from an underlying sentiment voiced during hearings over establishing a shelter: that Laguna Beach will become a magnet for homeless people. The numbers coming to the shelter don’t support those concerns, he said.

“When we first opened the shelter, there were about 60 people and there’s still about 60-65 people.  We need to be able to give a place to stay for 60-65 people.”  When the weather is warmer, Beu supports allowing sleeping bags to return to the canyon shelter.

Calvary Chapel in Capo Beach recently shut down its shelter due to complaints about housing too many people, said Steve Hagy, the cold-weather shelter director. He is pressing for a permanent south county shelter, modeled after the Orange County Rescue Mission. Hagy says he’s organizing a committee of churches to present a plan to the Dana Point City Council.

While city officials say other communities need to step up and provide facilities for their homeless, local advocates steadfastly say permanent housing is required to re-integrate homeless people into the mainstream.

In recent weeks, the Friendship Shelter’s board has begun to discuss the possibilities with a variety of “permanent-supportive-housing program” experts but no agreements have yet been finalized, Price said.

One of the potential sites for permanent housing is the former Verizon lot the city purchased for $670,000 last summer, the current site for the city’s temporary shelter, previously located in the ACT V parking lot closer to town on Laguna Canyon Road.

“They would like to use that site,” verified council member Verna Rollinger, who said she recently talked with Friendship Shelter executives. “There’s a lot of speculation but the City Council certainly has not approved any housing or shelter facility,” Pietig said.

“We’re hoping we can continue to have conversations on this road we’ve started down with this shelter,” Rev. Rechter said, “and that it’s leading to permanent shelter.”

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