By WILLIAM HAGLE |LB Indy
Sixty-seven year old Jim Keegan, a gentle six-plus footer schooled in New York’s Catholic parochial schools, can be found Monday through Friday in Laguna Beach’s Heisler Park, distributing coffee and pastries to the homeless and arranging rides to Laguna Relief and Resource center for showers. His teen-age grandchildren, who also live in town, show up occasionally to spend time with him and the homeless.
Keegan, who worked with the homeless in Los Angeles and taught at Orange County’s Theo Lacy Jail, relocated to Laguna Beach 10 years ago to be closer to his daughter’s children.
An experience in a Catholic college set Keegan on his activist path. He read “The Meaning of History,” by German philosopher Karl Jasper. “In all those traditions he studied in the book,” Keegan said, “Hebrew and Muslim and Buddhist and Greek and others, Jasper said, ‘Kindness is everything’.”
Keegan says kindness propelled him into a leading role in the homeless rights lawsuit filed in federal court against the city of Laguna Beach, its City Council and its police force last week by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Newport Beach law firm of Irell and Manella, and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine law school. The suit seeks to modify city ordinances, which the lawsuit characterizes as making homelessness illegal.
Irell and Manella partners have done substantial pro-bono work for gay rights and litigated over illegal human trafficking, immigrants’ rights, and artists’ visual rights. They represent five Laguna Beach homeless plaintiffs in its federal lawsuit, also pro bono.
Andra Barmash Greene of Irell and Manella had previously worked for Keegan on another matter and was invited by him to sit in on meetings by Laguna Beach’s homeless task force in 2007.
Keegan, though not an official member, began attending task force sessions since their inception in March of 2007 and kept track of its activities along with Gene Gratz, a local constitutional attorney. “I was kind of appalled at the things discussed and I ended up calling Irell and Manella in the spring of 2007,” Keegan said.
In the following months, Keegan said that Irell and Manella contacted the ACLU. “The telling thing about the legal end of this, is that the ACLU took this case,” he said.
“The situation was problematic,” Greene said. “They were harassed for sleeping,” she said of homeless people, who were roused by police for sleeping on public property.
Assistant City Manager John Pietig takes exception to the lawsuit’s characterization of Laguna Beach. He laid out the city’s commitment to helping the homeless by pointing to the adoption of nine milestones, recommendations by the homeless task force, including a $100,000 interest free loan to the all-volunteer Resource center to establish a shelter.
“Laguna Beach appears to be doing more than any other community I know of for its homeless. Is there an example of any other city which has done more in an 11 month period?” he asked, referring to last January when the City Council adopted the homeless task force’s 14 recommendations, which included establishing emergency shelter beds.
Some of the citations cited in the complaint were issued during fire season in land designated “open space” behind the Edison substation on Laguna Canyon Road, used as a homeless encampment. After warnings to the homeless by local police, county parks rangers confiscated camping equipment and posted no trespassing signs.
Only after the individuals were again found camping in the same spot were citations issued for illegal lodging on public property, Pietig said.
Apart from the public task force meetings, ACLU attorneys also met privately with Pietig and city attorney Phil Kohn over homeless issues. The city requested that Irell and Manella attorneys help draft city ordinances to humanely help the homeless, or to reference a template that could be used. “We were asking for their ideas as part of a solution,” Pietig said, “They declined to offer any help.”
Keegan replied that it was not Irell and Manella’s job to find that solution for the city. “Why give them tools to beat the homeless over the head,” Keegan asked. “It is an adversarial system,” he said.
City officials pointed out that the homeless task force never officially disbanded, and that at the Oct. 21 council meeting it was decided that the new mayor, Kelly Boyd, and Councilmember Toni Iseman were to be reappointed to chair a homeless oversight task force and to appoint additional members to the committee as they see fit.
Keegan’s made a good living developing commercial retail projects in Connecticut, Nevada and elsewhere, though not Orange County. He is self-effacing, moves slowly without a hint of a strut, and his body language is difficult at first to pick out from among the homeless at the park.
Though he helped instigate the lawsuit, Keegan intends to continue to stay involved, perhaps even seek a role on the reconstituted task force, and plan his morning around visits to Heisler Park.