Chronically homeless and diagnosed with depression and alcoholism, Kenneth Glover is one of five plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the City of Laguna Beach last week by the American Civil Liberties Union and two attorneys from the firm of Paul Hastings, LLP.
Glover, 47, has made Laguna Beach his home since 2011. But his attempts to find a place to sleep at night have put him on the wrong side of the law.
When he can, Glover beds down in one of the 45 spots at the sleeping shelter for the homeless in Laguna Canyon, which the Friendship Shelter operates for the city. But since he doesn’t have status as a “local,” he only spends the night when he wins the lottery for one of the spots that are left after the regulars have all been accommodated, according to the lawsuit.
When he slept in the shelter’s parking lot after being denied space inside one night, Glover was cited for illegal “lodging” in public under state law when the police discovered him the next morning. On another occasion, he was given a bus pass to a shelter in Fullerton, which was closed when he arrived.
When he did get into the shelter, he found it stressful because of the noise and the nightmares he suffered there. When he didn’t, he had no legal place to sleep, according to the complaint, and sought places to sleep where he could avoid detection by police or residents.
Even so, he was cited three more times, twice for illegally sleeping on the beach and once for illegal “camping.”
The class action lawsuit holds the city responsible for failing to provide chronically homeless, mentally and/or physically disabled individuals like Glover, his co-plaintiffs and others with a suitable place to sleep. The city’s practice of providing limited shelter to the local homeless population, while at the same time harassing those forced to sleep outside because they can’t access the shelter “discriminates against, criminalizes, and endangers disabled, homeless persons and, in so doing, violates their civil rights,” the suit claims.
Laguna Beach City Manager John Pietig said in a statement that the City Council unanimously decided to vigorously defend the city against the lawsuit in the belief its policies and actions comply with the law. He pointed out Laguna provides the only year-round shelter in the county and lamented the ACLU’s suit rather than recognition of the city’s “unparalleled efforts” to help the homeless population.
Claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the 8th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit insists that the only solution for the chronically homeless disabled population is to provide them with permanent supportive housing.
The lawsuit seeks injunctions preventing police from enforcing anti public sleeping and anti-camping laws and requiring the city to provide permanent supportive housing for disabled homeless people.
The lawsuit “shines further light” on the need to solve homelessness through
housing, Dawn Price, executive director of the Friendship Shelter, said in a statement. “Friendship Shelter has long advocated for permanent supportive housing, and while we would not have chosen litigation, we cannot and will not change our position on this important issue,” declared Price.
Indeed, for the last 18 months, the Friendship Shelter has strongly advocated for establishing just such a facility for the chronically homeless with disabling mental conditions at the location of the current sleeping shelter, sandwiched between the dog park and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
However, many residents vociferously opposed the project site, as did supporters of the neighboring Pacific Marine Mammal Center, who said its proximity might compromise their funding. And, after extensive negotiations on that project, the City Council decided against it in June.
“It is not yet clear if there is an appropriate site for such a facility in Laguna Beach,” Pietig said in his letter, noting that the Friendship Shelter housed 21 people in permanent supportive housing in southern Orange County since 2014 and has funding for 23 more units that may open later this year.
Asked about the origin of the lawsuit, ACLU attorney Heather Johnson said the organization has been receiving complaints about the treatment of the homeless in Laguna Beach since terms agreed to in a previous 2009 settlement ended.
A lawsuit filed in December 2008 called the city to task for citing homeless individuals for sleeping in public places when they had no viable alternative. In a settlement, the city agreed to repeal laws relating to camping and sleeping in public places. The city subsequently established a sleeping shelter with the idea that as long as the local homeless population was provided with an alternative to sleeping in public, they could resume enforcing laws prohibiting it.
According to an ACLU statement, the city resumed citing homeless individuals for sleeping in public at the end of the three-year settlement period, despite challenges in accessing the shelter, whether for lack of space or because their disabilities precluded it.
The ACLU’s goal is to protect and defend the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness, as well as to push for policy changes to end homelessness, such as providing permanent supportive housing, said Johnson, who formerly worked for National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
That organization recently published a report entitled “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities,” which calls communities across the country into account for criminalizing homeless people who engage in unavoidable activities such as sleeping or sitting down.
Those practices are designed to remove from downtown areas the visible homelessness that has increased since the economic downturn, Johnson said. And cities typically turn to a law enforcement solution, “which is not effective in the long term,” she said, because people have no way to comply with the laws, which end up criminalizing their status.
“Laguna Beach is not the only city that has taken this approach,” said Johnson.
In fact, as an example of the issue’s national scope, the U.S. Department of Justice on Aug. 6 filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit brought by a group of homeless individuals against the City of Boise, Idaho. The suit opposes the city’s laws against sleeping on city streets.
“Many homeless individuals are unable to secure shelter space because city shelters are over capacity or inaccessible to people with disabilities,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, in a statement released at the time of the filing. “Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights. Moreover, enforcing these ordinances is poor public policy.”
According to an article in the Boise Weekly, city officials there contend that they only enforce the laws when they know there is available space in local shelters.