“Fifteen minutes after being in here every night, I have an overwhelming urge to run down the street screaming. I feel like they’ve accidentally placed me in a mental institution instead of a shelter.”
That’s how Michael, a former restaurant and department store manager, feels about the city’s new homeless shelter, a modular unit that opened last month north of the Dog Park on Laguna Canyon Road. The city has leased the 3,600-square-foot facility for four years.
Better-dressed than the average homeless person, Michael, who preferred not using his last name, takes responsibility for a colliding series of circumstances, but partly attributes his situation to Asperger’s syndrome.
With thoughtful observation, he wonders if the homeless shelter is serving a constructive purpose. “At what point are they just enabling these people? These people seem like they could live here forever and they get a crazy sense of entitlement,” he said.
Minutes before, another homeless man, who’s been in Laguna for two years and was convicted for assault 10 years ago, became belligerent waiting outside the shelter’s locked and gated fence before it opened for the night.
He was intercepted by Mark Miller, director of programs at the Friendship Shelter in town who oversees the shelter’s overnight activities. Miller asked the man if he could contain his emotions. “He didn’t think he would be able to,” Miller said, “so he decided to leave. This is a low-tolerance program. Abuse is not something that is fair to the rest of the community.”
Zoe, who also requested surname anonymity, compares the new shelter to a refugee camp. “It’s not about making us feel safe. It’s not about getting our needs met. It’s not about ‘We’re here for you,’” she said. “It’s about homeless people are irrelevant. We’re eyesores.”
Asst. City Manager John Pietig maintains that the shelter’s location has nothing to do with sequestering the homeless. The site was chosen, he said, because it was vacant and there were no residences nearby.
Tensions are high at the new shelter, said Miller, because people don’t like change, particularly after they found a needed measure of routine in the previous shelter that temporarily opened last November in the wake of a lawsuit.
“Because this shelter is new for them, they don’t have that comfort,” Miller said. “We’re hoping that time will take care of that. In the meantime, we’re trying to be as gentle as we possibly can.” The new facility is sheltering as many as 52 people a night, he said.
The former shelter was dismantled when its parking lot location was reopened last month for visitors. A larger, $153,000-unit was assembled at the vacant Verizon lot north of the Dog Park, which the city purchased for $670,000.
The new shelter will eventually be equipped with amenities such as showers, kitchen, laundry and computer room that the former one lacked thanks to $65,000 contribution from the Laguna Relief and Resource Center. Those services were available to homeless people at the center, in a ranch-style house about a mile away, where they helped make breakfast and lunch, washed their clothes and took showers at assigned times.
“The house is just that. It’s a house,” said Marianna Hof, a Resource Center volunteer. “It’s got bookshelves. It has a bathroom; you would have grown up with a bathroom like this. It’s just not as institutional as I know this other place is going to feel. If you’re homeless, you probably would like a house, and this is a house.”
The Resource Center will relocate to the shelter on Aug. 1, paying the city $1,000 a month to lease an existing building there for food and clothing distribution to families in need.
Resource Center staff now oversees daytime activities from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the new shelter while Friendship Shelter employees supervise nights from 5 p.m. on. The shelter is closed to the homeless in between. A 15-passenger, $45,000 van purchased by the city offers transportation.
While the kitchen at the new modular shelter is being finished, up to 20 homeless people are showing up at the Resource Center for meals before it closes. “Renata is a worker bee and Cheryl cooks up the meanest breakfast,” said Hof. “We’re talking full English breakfast, meat, eggs, biscuits, fruit. It’s a feast. And the food’s all donated.”
Resource Center chairwoman Faye Chapman hopes to offer routine and constructive activities at the new location. “We’re going to start some AA meetings and self-esteem workshops, even yoga,” she said. “We’re going to start building people’s lives so they can start taking care of themselves. And we really need volunteers.”