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Laguna Beach homeless policies targeted

December 24, 2008|Paloma Esquivel

Early last year, Laguna Beach city officials set about addressing homelessness in the upscale enclave. They assembled a task force to study the issue, installed parking meters to collect change for social services and assigned a police officer as a liaison for the community's homeless.

But on Tuesday, homeless advocates filed suit against the city, saying that its real intent was to engage in a campaign of harassment while providing no long-term, city-sponsored shelters.

"City leaders have chosen to attempt to eliminate the homeless, rather than eliminate homelessness," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

In a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, the ACLU -- along with Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, and the Newport Beach-based law firm of Irell & Manella LLP -- accuses the city of failing to have long-term shelters, criminalizing sleeping on the street and allowing police harassment for minor or unavoidable offenses.

The city's "treatment of mentally and physically disabled homeless people violates the clear mandate of the Constitution," said Chemerinsky.

The city's Homeless Task Force reported early this year that there are 45 to 55 homeless people in Laguna Beach. Almost all met the definition of chronic homelessness, and many have a mental or physical disability. According to the suit, the city offers no transitional or emergency shelter other than a cold weather shelter, which operates on cold nights between December and March.

Assistant City Manager John Pietig said officials are looking to work with regional shelters, such as a transitional housing facility that opened in Tustin this fall, to house long-term homeless persons.

As for opening such a shelter in Laguna Beach, he said, the prospects are small.

"Our city is largely built out," Pietig said. "There isn't a lot of available land to build shelters, and the land that is available is very expensive."

Despite not providing sufficient shelter, the lawsuit alleges, the city refuses to rescind an ordinance that makes it illegal to sleep on the beach, in city parks, on public streets, in alleys or in a car parked at any place in the city.

"The ordinance effectively makes it illegal to be homeless in Laguna Beach," said Jill R. Sperber, a lawyer with Irell & Manella LLP.

Pietig countered that the city had not actively enforced the ordinance since February and is looking into revising it.

"We need to see if there is a better way to do it," he said.

The suit also alleges that police officers have actively engaged in a campaign of harassment against the homeless. In January, the city touted hiring Officer Jason Farris as part of an extensive outreach effort to build trust with street people and persuade them to get aid.

According to the suit, welfare checks by the officer and others are actually an excuse to interrogate the city's homeless, wake them in the middle of the night and early morning, demand ID and search property.

Jim Keegan, a homeless advocate who has lived in Laguna Beach for 10 years, said he has worked to feed and counsel the homeless for nearly 30 years.

"The proper reaction to their stories is tears. It should make you weep," he said. "The leadership of this city doesn't seem to feel that way."

Pietig sees it differently.

"This community has really taken the time and effort to come up with a comprehensive approach to dealing with homelessness," he said. "It's disappointing people are taking this opportunity to degrade the city and its efforts."

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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