In a lawsuit filed on behalf of a group of disabled homeless people living in Laguna Beach, a federal judge this week denied their request for a court-ordered halt to enforcement of anti-camping laws in town.
Their suit contends that because Laguna’s year-round overnight shelter lacks adequate capacity, disabled individuals are denied a safe, legal alternative and instead are subject to police enforcement. The lawsuit alleges these practices are a violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit last August on behalf of five homeless people. The group filed a suit against Laguna Beach that raised similar grievances in 2009, which resulted in a settlement and the opening of the only year-round shelter in the county, known as the Alternative Sleeping Location in Laguna Canyon.
In the order issued Wednesday, Feb. 10, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford denied the request for a preliminary injunction and cast doubt on the likelihood that the suit could succeed on its Eighth Amendment and ADA claims as well.
“Plaintiffs don’t show how enjoining the city from enforcing the anti-camping provisions would make the ASL more accessible or appropriate for disabled persons,” wrote Guilford.
In a statement issued Friday, Feb. 12, Mayor Steve Dicterow said “while the ACLU’s claims unfortunately are misinformed, the city shares Judge Guilford’s recognition of the problems associated with homelessness, and we remain committed to the provision of robust programs and services to support and assist our homeless residents in need.”
Asked if the city would file a motion seeking to dismiss the suit altogether, City Attorney Phil Kohn said no decision had yet been made. Dicterow’s statement said the city will continue to vigorously defend itself through the remainder of the legal process.
A preliminary injunction would have prevented police from enforcing municipal codes that
prohibit camping, sleeping or storing belongings on public or private property while the lawsuit is pending. In the earlier ACLU settlement, the city agreed to limit enforcement of anti-camping laws for two years. The agreement lapsed in 2011.
Police have since issued 380 citations between 2011 and 2014 for violation of the anti-camping provisions, the judge’s order noted. Another 160 were issued last year, Captain Jason Kravetz says in a court filing.
In an interview, ACLU attorney Belinda Escobosa Helzer argued that the city’s practice of ticketing and rousting homeless people sleeping outdoors due to over-capacity at the shelter violates the “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibition.
“I also made it clear how significantly damaging it is for people with deteriorating mental health to be under scrutiny when they have no place to go,” said Escobosa Helzer, recounting her testimony at an earlier hearing last month. She could not be reached for comment Friday, Feb. 12.
Statements from people taking advantage of the shelter describe its shortcomings.
Though not a named plaintiff, Pam Bowers, 46, a former Newport Beach resident, described the conditions she has endured while homeless in Laguna for about a year. New rules restricting storage of belongings at the ASL prove particularly difficult for Bowers, who uses crutches because of a broken leg. She hides her possessions in the creek to avoid their seizure by police whenever she needs to take a bus anywhere. She says she can’t manage her things and crutches to travel to an alternate shelter.
Formerly homeless Leonard Porto continues to visit friends at the ASL, which closes during the day but its amenity-bare parking lot remains a hangout. People used to collect water for drinking from a leaking water valve, Porto’s court statement says. Last September, city officials replaced the valve and surrounded it with a padlocked cage. Now desperate people collect water from the air conditioning unit, he said. “It is very emotionally difficult for me to see how my homeless friends are treated and their needs ignored,” Porto said in the filing.
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 services, City Manager John Pietig said in a statement. He declined further comment.
“The ACLU’s attempt to turn the voluntary efforts of the city and its community partners into a legal mandate to provide permanent supportive housing is misguided,” he continued. “Not only does the law not support such a mandate, but the ACLU’s position will disincentivize other local agencies from offering the type of shelter provided by Laguna Beach. In any event, the city will continue to look for opportunities to address the needs of the homeless on a cooperative and regional basis.”
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