Larry Haynes could easily use four more hands and two more of himself. Maybe then he could take a breath.
And that’s exactly what Haynes, an expert on homelessness with 20 years experience in Southern California, is suggesting for the uncertain citizens of Laguna Beach.
“Number one, people need to relax a little bit, just breathe,” Haynes said. “This isn’t going to be solved overnight. There’s going to be missteps along the way. Everybody just relax and stay at the table talking. If everyone can compromise just a little bit, I think some neat things will happen.”
Walking with Haynes through one of his immaculately clean transitional houses for people in need, this one for homeless people with HIV or AIDS in Santa Ana’s historic district, conveys a sense of confidence and stability.
A nonstop mother lode of refreshingly candid information, Haynes was the original employee of Mercy House, which started with a single rented home in 1990 that provided transitional shelter for 10 men. Mercy House corporation now offers a range of shelters and services for a wide-range of homeless people in Orange, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties. As executive director, Haynes, 45, has established 10 transitional houses serving single men, women, families and HIV-AIDS patients. All have the same goal: get people off the streets and back on their feet.
Haynes also represents one arm of the triad of nonprofits that city officials expect to contract with to operate the planned overnight shelter for homeless people in Laguna Canyon. Dawn Price, executive director of the Friendship Shelter, and Jason Paransky, chairman of the Laguna Relief and Resource Center, complete the shelter’s operating team leaders.
Haynes possesses a keen perspective on what works for transitioning displaced people from the beggars-can’t-be-choosers stigma of the streets to the independence of living in permanent housing and earning their own keep.
“When given the opportunity to move into their own apartments that are safe, warm, beautiful and dignified, there aren’t very many people who are saying, ‘No, thank you.’ I suspect we’ll have the same experience in Laguna once we get to that point.”
More than 1500 people have been helped in the last two years under a Mercy House program that steps in with cash to prevent eviction for a year. The success rate, says Haynes, has been a whopping 90 percent. “We’re preventing them from becoming homeless,” he said.
Haynes regards the temporary modular unit set to open at ACT V in early November as a first step toward this same end.
“What we’re doing with this temporary site is the first bend along the journey. It’s not our destination. To look at this as a destination point is a mistake and is worth criticizing if this is all we’re going to do. But this isn’t all we’re going to do,” he vowed.
Haynes recently worked with Ontario to screen residents of its tent city near the airport to ensure their ties to the town. He clearly understands the polarizing fear that Laguna Beach will become a destination for regional transients.
And residents oppose a shelter for a myriad other reasons, too. Laguna Canyon residents fear brush fires sparked by cigarette butts carelessly discarded. Others simply don’t like the canyon serving as a dumping ground for what the city finds undesirable.
“I think the shelter is going to lure more people here,” said Keri Kerns, a Canyon Acres resident who lived in San Francisco for nine years, where homelessness is a major issue. “With the homeless, you have people who clearly have mental issues of self-worth and accountability and that’s what needs to be taken care of. I don’t want people with questionable backgrounds at my front door. If you have to provide a site, please don’t put it in a neighborhood.”
“As for the fire concern, we’ve addressed it,” said Haynes, who attended the standing-room-only meeting Oct. 6 when the shelter location was approved. A designated smoking area, nonflammable materials, and nearby hoses that staff will use to wet down the adjacent ground during high-risk season will be put into place, he said.
As for the NIMBY factor, he said, “At all of our other facilities, we have been active with the neighbors to develop a positive relationship,” adding that the extent of that will be up to the local partners.
Another staunch opponent to the shelter is Jeffrey Redeker, president of Laguna’s Chamber of Commerce and a vice president for commercial banking at Bank of America. Redeker believes homelessness is a regional problem that should be shared by neighboring communities. He also believes a shelter here can only attract more of what the chamber doesn’t want, more homeless.
“If I was getting housing and I was getting medical care and I was getting a place to get my mail and I was getting a place to launder my belongings and to shower and all these other great things, boy, what a great place to go,” Redeker said during the Oct. 6 council meeting. “Why am I the dummy going to work everyday?”
In Ontario, a one-block-square tent city did become a magnet, which mushroomed from 20 to 400 residents in nine months. “We were partners with Ontario before it happened, during and since then,” said Haynes, adding that it was a lesson learned and one not to be repeated. “That’s the very thing we’re working to avoid in Laguna.”
He understands the necessity of defining and setting boundaries. Shouldering responsibility to care for people from other cities is “unfair and unethical” to local residents, he said. “It will only lead to failure if Laguna Beach becomes the destination for the poor in Newport Beach and Dana Point.”
Who gains entry and who shows up are questions Haynes has wrestled with before.
Ontario city officials worked closely with the American Civil Liberties Union to create a definition to answer who is permitted on the premises. In Laguna, Haynes said, that definition will likely include those with historical ties and connections to the town. “Those people are in,” he said. Even so, “they may or may not use the shelter,” he pointed out.
And he realizes no strategy will satisfy the mix of interests in Laguna.
“I’ve spent hours and hours and hours on weekends when people are off-duty, late at night, with people who are interested and invested in this and who are definitely looking for the right, compassionate way to do this. It might surprise you. If we can get over that distrust of each other, we can move forward, and we will.”