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Give Them Shelter

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The lure to leave the beach? Free food.

Described as the city’s most pivotal decision and intended to reclaim the town’s parks and beaches from a growing homeless population, the City Council on Tuesday agreed to set up a mandatory overnight shelter for those without a bed as well as to re-instate strict anti-camping regulations on public property.

City officials believe an overnight shelter in the ACT V parking lot on Laguna Canyon Road will fulfill a legal requirement to provide a designated sleeping site for homeless people while again enforcing laws that prohibit sleeping in public places.

“Maybe this is an unsolvable problem,” said Ed Sauls, the first of an hour-long procession of people who commented on the plan. Sauls, chairman of the city’s homeless advisory committee, voiced support, although with reservations. “We need a permanent solution; this is not it,” he said. Nevertheless, he urged the council to move forward with the temporary shelter while continuing to discuss a more comprehensive solution.

The shelter’s most vigorous opponents were the Chamber of Commerce, which suggested completely scraping the plan and starting over, and Laguna Canyon residents fearful of fire ignited from carelessly tossed cigarette butts at the shelter’s canyon location, also home to a city maintenance yard.

Logistics for the overnight shelter entail rounding up individuals who have been camping in city parks and on public beaches and busing them at 6:15 p.m. to the ACT V lot each evening for a free meal at 6:30 p.m. They will then be required to be inside the shelter by 9 p.m., which will be closed until 7:30 a.m., when the overnighters will be given breakfast to go. Transportation back to town will not be provided.

“They will follow the food,” predicted Councilwoman Toni Iseman after the meeting adjourned at 11:30 p.m., adding that using meals as an incentive is based on findings from Mercy House, a shelter for homeless people in Santa Ana. Operators of Mercy House helped a city advisory committee on homelessness formulate its final recommendations.

Iseman has held that providing food at Heisler Park and Main Beach exacerbated the problem during the summer when the number of itinerant homeless people in Laguna reportedly increased to more than 100. If the dispossessed people in Laguna don’t go to the shelter, Iseman added, they will be ticketed. “They can’t camp.”

Calculating a total-cost breakdown over eight months of operation, the 50-person shelter, considered temporary and about a mile north of Main Beach, will cost the city nearly $30,000 a month to operate. The 50-person capacity was selected based on the number of homeless people who have traditionally lived in Laguna and not the higher number counted at parks and beaches this summer.

The facility is expected to open Nov. 1, coincidentally two weeks before National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. It will also serve as the city’s cold weather shelter, supplanting services provided in recent years by local churches. The shelter is to remain open until June 15, 2010, when summer art festivals reopen and the demand for parking spaces soars. A summer location is expected to be proposed by that time.

City officials will ask Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, along with the local organizations Laguna Relief and Resource Center and Friendship Shelter to operate the temporary facility and provide donated food, according to Pietig.

 

“We are the third smallest city in Orange County. We don’t have the resources to undertake fixing the homeless issue in Orange County,” said Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson. “We can do something right away with this temporary solution, but can we afford $50,000 a month for eternity? It makes me very nervous.” She later revised the figure to $30,000.

Asst. City Manager John Pietig said the temporary shelter will cost $70,000 to establish and a total of $235,000 to operate through the middle of next year. Most shelter funding will come from an unexpected windfall in property tax revenue, a four percent rather than the anticipated three percent increase, amounting to an extra $200,000 in the city’s budget, he said.

The city will model its final anti-camping ordinance after a similar ordinance in Santa Ana that has withstood legal challenges, according to a city report.

“We’re certainly glad that there’s now hopefully going to be a safe and secure place for homeless residents to sleep,” said attorney Andra Greene, who represented the American Civil Liberties Union in its suit against Laguna Beach on behalf of five disabled plaintiffs. “We don’t have any agreement with them as to how they can and can’t enforce various laws,” she said.

In accordance with its settlement, the city provided the ACLU with adequate notice of its intent to reinstate the anti-camping ordinance, with an initial notice sent before the Sept. 1 council meeting, Pietig said. Another reading of the ordinance is expected Nov. 3, he added.

Laguna Beach has grappled with providing a designated sleeping area since last December when the suit was filed contesting the legality of the city’s anti-camping rules. The city rescinded its statute two months later and settled the matter out of court by agreeing to expunge citations issued under the old ordinance for camping in public places and to notify the ACLU when new ordinances are planned. Meanwhile, makeshift camps set up by homeless people on city property flourished along with complaints from business owners, residents and visitors.

“Our responsibility is first and foremost for the safety of the people who live here and the business owners who operate here,” said Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson. Whether fear of homeless people is a reality or a perception, she said, “We have to do something to get people camping along the beaches and in our parks somewhere else so that our residents feel safe and so that our business owners feel like their businesses aren’t going to be hurt and, by the way, so our tax base isn’t going to be hurt.”

Some criticized the measure as punitive rather than a solution to assist homeless people toward productive lives. “That’s not solving anything,” said James Hall, who was formerly homeless in Laguna for three years, during a break in the proceedings. “You’re getting them off the streets at night but first thing in the morning, they’re going right back where they were.” A better solution, he suggested, would be a permanent structure that offered professional services designed to assist people in becoming responsible again. “You give them half of a chance and it’s amazing what you’d see,” he said.

The shelter sleeping area will be equipped with either a cot or a mat, depending upon whether the area will be a fenced enclosure or a modular unit under consideration. Duffle bags will also be provided within a locked storage area for daytime use, intended to deter shelter-seekers from carrying possessions to beaches and parks. Three portable toilets with sinks will be available and possibly a shower.

 

The council also unanimously approved other shelter-related ordinances prohibiting smoking and drinking alcohol. In an attempt to make shelter use compulsory, a second ordinance establishes unlawful conduct on public property, including setting up any type of shelter, storing belongings, possessing as well as drinking alcoholic beverages, making open fires or loitering and impinging upon the use of public restrooms. Violators will first be warned before being ticketed for continuing the unlawful action.

Part of the shelter plan includes offering the Resource Center $500 a month to open its facility eight hours during weekdays so that homeless people can eat, shower and wash their clothes.

The offer is moot since every homeless person in the city already regularly uses the services at the center, which is currently open to them all day, said Tony Rogers, the center’s full-time volunteer director, who keeps a daily total tally. Only the food bank is limited to morning hours, he said.

The plan also includes diverting $10,000 towards “Project Homecoming,” to help transient individuals living in Laguna as of Sept. 1 find inexpensive transportation to their home cities and states.

The city manager was asked to research limiting use of the overnight shelter to homeless individuals who have lived, worked or attended school in Laguna or have been homeless here for at least two years and to pursue imposing a midnight to 5 a.m. curfew on all parks and beaches. The 24-hour police watch effective last month will continue at Heisler Park, Main Beach and downtown beaches.

Many shelter recommendations stem from a subcommittee to the advisory committee on homelessness, which the council discontinued at the suggestion of its chairman, Ed Sauls, who also resigned.

Doug Dumaurier, a resident homeless person for all of his 60-something years, noted, to the amusement of the meeting’s audience, that while addicts, murderers, rapists and other criminals won’t be allowed in the shelter, “they’ll still be running around on the beach and in the streets.” He added that, even though the shelter proposal purportedly provides protection for homeless individuals as well as residents, “I don’t think the homeless want protection; they’re not the ones who are scared.”

Suggesting that the city consider purchasing an empty retirement home, Dumaurier pointed out that “Laguna Beach is in the limelight of the whole world right now. If we do this right, we could set an example for every other city in the nation. Why do the retarded thing of having everybody in a tent on a cot? All we have to do is get the police to say we committed a crime to go to the farm and get three hots and a cot.”

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