Police will start picking up homeless people sleeping under the Main Beach boardwalk in Laguna Beach during the early morning hours in a new four-seat golf cart big enough to hold their belongings.
The City Council approved an ordinance Tuesday, April 26, that allows police to use a low-speed utility vehicle to patrol the boardwalk and city parks. Council member Rob Zur Schmiede was absent from the meeting.
“We want to make sure we’re not violating our own laws,” Police Chief Laura Farinella said in an interview earlier Tuesday about the new ordinance. The vehicle will not be used for routine patrols but only in response to complaints, she said.
James Hall, who’s worked with homeless people in Laguna Beach for the past 10 years and provides coffee to them every morning with Jim Keegan at Heisler Park, says he thinks the golf cart is a good idea.
He mentioned a homeless woman he knows who complained about police waking her in the middle of the night while sleeping under the boardwalk. If homeless people are bedding down in plain sight at the busiest intersection in town, where Broadway Street and Coast Highway meet at Main Beach, they’re asking for trouble, Hall said. The police are not harassing the homeless; they’re simply doing their job enforcing the curfew, he commented.
Problems arise because a lot of the homeless, said Hall, are alcoholics, addicts or have mental disorders. “Those are the ones who really need help,” he said.
But the American Civil Liberties Union calls the golf cart pick-ups another “tactic” in a “shell game” that’s costing taxpayers more than necessary.
“This tactic is really not taking any concrete steps to address the issue or the needs of homeless people or come up with any long-term solutions,” said ACLU attorney Belinda Escobosa Helzer. “The problem of homelessness in Laguna Beach is solvable and the city can solve the problem by providing alternative housing…that is more cost effective.”
The four-seater golf cart provides room to put a lost child or people who need help finding their car or other assistance as well as homeless people and their belongings, Farinella said.
“We get quite a few complaints on a weekly basis from people who walk in the early morning hours and don’t like the nuisance issues and just the eyesore of people sleeping on the beach,” she said. The cart will also take traffic-control guards to their destinations.
The golf cart is the first low-speed utility vehicle to go on the boardwalk and into the parks, particularly Heisler Park above Main Beach where homeless people are often found, City Manager John Pietig said at an earlier council meeting.
“We get called frequently for people who are sleeping and, if they have bedrolls and things like that, we need to assist them to move along,” Farinella told the council then. “We can put that in the cart and move it out of the area and assist them in doing that.”
If they comply, the homeless people sleeping in the parks or under the boardwalk during curfew hours are not cited or arrested, said Farinella.
Farinella said the homeless people are asked to move to another location or taken to a friend’s house or the homeless shelter in Laguna Canyon, also known as the Alternative Sleeping Location, or another shelter. “It’s only four hours, from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.,” Farinella said of the beach curfew.
“The city is quite aware the ASL is full every night. The Santa Ana Armory is currently closed and is only open certain times of the year,” said Helzer. “When I look at this practice what I see is an attempt to shuffle people around to places that aren’t even available to them. It seems like just a shell game and avoids what Laguna Beach should be doing.”
Police have used a two-seater golf cart for a year and a half to patrol downtown streets as well as a four-wheel utility vehicle to patrol for people sleeping on the sand, said Farinella. An all-terrain vehicle is used by police and the fire department to respond to calls in the hiking and biking wilderness areas around town, she said.
A pending lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the city charges that Laguna’s year-round overnight shelter lacks adequate capacity, which denies disabled individuals a safe, legal alternative and subjects them to police actions. The lawsuit alleges these practices violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In a hearing in January, Helzer argued that the city’s practice of ticketing and rousting homeless people sleeping outdoors because there’s no room at the shelter violates the “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibition of the Eighth Amendment.
The next hearing scheduled in September will determine if the lawsuit is a class-action suit, Helzer said, which would cover a broader population of homeless people with disabilities. The ACLU is representing five people in Laguna Beach, citing accessibility issues for disabled individuals.
Since 2009, Laguna has spent $350,000 annually on homeless services that include the emergency shelter, a van shuttle, and a community outreach officer and case worker to connect people with their families and needed services, Pietig said in a sworn statement filed in the case. The city is fighting the case and filed a forceful 22-page rejoinder.