A new lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the homeless population of Laguna Beach reignited controversy brewing in the city at least since 2009.
The lawsuit, the second filed in six years by the ACLU, alleges that the city’s policies toward the homeless are discriminatory and violations of civil liberties. But a backlash against the lawsuit is building within the business community and includes the City Council, which unanimously voted to defend against the suit rather than even considering a settlement, as it did in 2009.
Among those who support the city’s stance is contemporary art gallery owner Peter Blake, whose sentiments are echoed in a slew of letters to the editor on the topic. “When you look at how much our city has done for the homeless population, how can the ACLU sue our community?” Blake asked. “Laguna Beach has always taken care of our local homeless. We are the most compassionate and most progressive city in this regard. We have done everything right,” Blake claimed.
For Blake, the suit is the final straw for a resident who has called Laguna Beach his home since 1986. “If we lose this fight, I will not live here and will move my business,” he said.
As a result of the earlier 2009 ACLU settlement, Laguna Beach established an overnight shelter, the Alternative Sleeping Location in Laguna Canyon, which has a capacity for 45 people a night. It is operated under contract by Friendship Shelter, which also runs its own residential facility to aid homeless people achieve self-sufficiency.
But the city has yet to embrace another proposal from Friendship Shelter, to establish permanent supportive housing for chronically mentally disabled homeless, which Executive Director Dawn Price argues is the best solution to chronic homelessness. It’s a defining issue in Laguna Beach and elsewhere in the county. There are nearly 13,000 homeless individuals and families residing in the county, and on any given night, 4,000 are sleeping on the streets, according to information provided by the Association of California Cities-Orange County.
Jail time, police involvement, emergency room use, and ambulance use fall markedly in communities with permanent supportive housing, according to data cited by Friendship Shelter on national best practices for homelessness policies.
Even so, Blake believes the town’s homeless population has surged in the last year and has dramatically impacted retailers in the downtown area. “We have taken a huge hit over the last year, even as the economy has improved,” he said. “This has become a safety issue in our city. The homeless population on the beach and in the park are destroying the quality of life in our community,” he said.
“I am urging all interested parties, across the spectrum of Orange County, to be part of the solution to ending homelessness in our region,” said Gail Eastman, a retired Anaheim City Councilmember, and chair of the Homelessness OC Task Force. The group convenes its first meeting Thursday, Sept. 24, and Eastman invited the county’s 34 mayors and city managers to participate.
What the task force can accomplish remains to be seen. Locally, the ACLU suit is forcing city leaders to address the matter with greater urgency.
“What we do know is that the homeless situation in Laguna Beach is not an economic one,” said Councilmember Toni Iseman. “This is primarily a health related issue, both physical and mental.”
For Price, who like Blake opposes the ACLU suit but for different reasons, the issue cannot be clearer. “When chronic homelessness ends, the impact of homelessness on all of the community, including businesses, is diminished as well,” she said.