Court Issues Partial Ruling in Homeless Disabled Suit

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Inside the ASL, the city-owned overnight homeless shelter in Laguna Canyon.
Inside the ASL, the city-owned overnight homeless shelter in Laguna Canyon.

In a decision this week, a federal judge ruled that a lawsuit raises genuine issues in contesting whether homeless people with disabilities are prevented from taking advantage of shelter and transportation provided by the city of Laguna Beach.

In addition, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford certified the claims stemming from the city’s homeless programs by three disabled homeless Laguna Beach men, David Sestini, Michael Newman and Richard Owens, as representative of a class of mentally and physically disabled people that could number 80. A trial is set for Aug. 1.

City Attorney Phil Kohn declined to comment on the developments in the now judicially sanctioned class-action suit, initially filed in August 2015. “We’re still reviewing and evaluating the recent multiple court rulings and their effect,” he said this week.

A statement from American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, who filed the suit attacking the legality of the city’s homeless shelter, claimed the rulings are “an important first step toward reform of Laguna Beach’s harsh, inadequate policies on homelessness.”

“The reality is that Laguna Beach has adopted a strategy that punishes disabled individuals merely for falling on hard times,” says a statement from Eve Garrow, an ACLU homeless policy analyst.

From a courthouse that overlooks a sprawling homeless encampment in Santa Ana’s Civic Center, Guilford pointed out “the court applies the law although, ironically, it could ultimately leave homeless folks out in the cold.”

He noted that, “nearby cities have been discussing solutions to the homeless crises, recognizing both the coldness of winter nights and perhaps the hearts of scrimping taxpayers.”

A similar sentiment was echoed in court documents Kohn filed this week. He predicted that a judgment against the city “would unnecessarily chill the ongoing or contemplated efforts of other communities to serve their own homeless populations.”

In 2009, a group of disabled homeless individuals filed a lawsuit against Laguna, which forbid sleeping in public places. As part of a settlement, the city repealed its anti-camping statute, established the county’s first year-round emergency shelter and then re-imposed public-sleeping prohibitions. Plaintiffs in the current suit allege disabled people cannot tolerate conditions at the 45-bed shelter and asked the court to compel the city to provide supportive housing as relief.

In one of his rulings, Guilford limited the scope of the suit to allegations that the city’s homeless shelter, known as the Alternative Sleeping Location, violates the Americans With Disabilities Act. He denied other allegations over violations of due process and cruel and unusual punishment.

In establishing the class of plaintiffs, he noted that they suffer from a variety of mental and physical disabilities. He cited examples in court filings by the city attorney, including one individual who was allegedly harmed physically by having to sleep on the ASL’s floor mats, while another suffered anxiety due to its crowded conditions.

The specifics didn’t matter to the judge. “The class all allegedly suffered the injury of having their rights violated due to their disabilities,” the judge wrote in his June 23 ruling. “All Proposed Class members want the same injunctive relief – ‘equal access to a safe, legal place to sleep’.”

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  1. Force LB to open a temporary shelter and then file a legal complaint the services provided are not good enough and demand a right to be provided permanent housing? The City contracts with the Friendship Shelter who manages and directly operates the services provided at the shelter, yet they were not named in this lawsuit. Friendship shelter just prior to the lawsuit, lost their battle with city to force development of permanent supportive housing. Many people find these facts to be compelling.


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