Garrow: Trying to Preserve Mental Health While Homeless in Laguna Beach

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Mike Newman tried hard to manage his clinical depression while living at Laguna Beach’s homeless shelter, but the conditions there made it nearly impossible.

Tucked deep in secluded Laguna Canyon, the shelter is far removed from the pristine beaches and rocky coves of this picturesque and affluent community. In sharp contrast to the laid-back beauty of the city’s downtown beach area, the shelter is noisy and overcrowded—a chaotic environment that only worsened Mike’s depression and other ailments. He slept on a thin mat that aggravated his hernia. He tried to cope while being confined in close quarters with 45 other people, most of whom had mental or physical disabilities. People often had mental health crises, and some screamed all night. Paramedics came and went on a regular basis.

A long-time Laguna Beach resident, Mike, who is 53 years old, moved to the shelter about seven years ago after falling on difficult times. As the years wore on, the shelter environment became unbearable.

Mike has a major depressive disorder, a medical condition that can be brutally incapacitating. Effective management of depression can be a matter of life and death—according to the American Medical Association, up to 15 percent of cases end in suicide. For Mike, the feelings of sadness that overtake him can be as painful and intense as the loss of a loved one. “Sometimes I just want to curl up in a bed and cry,” he said. “But when I was living at the shelter, I couldn’t get away from people. It made my depression worse.”

On nights when individuals with disabilities can get shelter in Laguna, they often find themselves unable to cope with the conditions there. People with disabilities often sleep outside, even though it means running afoul of the city’s ordinances banning sleeping in public, and inviting the attention of police officers who routinely sweep through the area and ticket or threaten to ticket people huddled in the shelter’s parking lot.

These days, Mike sleeps outside every night: A couple of months ago, he was banned from the shelter for being argumentative, a common symptom when his mental disability becomes difficult to manage. Lacking any process to challenge the ban, he set up camp on the beach.

Now, Laguna Beach officers routinely roust him in the middle of the night and issue him expensive citations for sleeping in public. He has accumulated six tickets in as many weeks, which he cannot pay—tickets representing fines and fees that could easily total hundreds or even thousands of dollars. He says harassment by police officers has contributed to his depression.

The harsh treatment mandated by Laguna Beach against Mike violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, which require state-funded programs to accommodate the needs of persons with disabilities. The ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal) and a pro bono team at the law firm Paul Hastings, LLP have cited his case and others in a lawsuit challenging Laguna Beach’s homelessness program. Mike and the other plaintiffs are seeking accommodations such as private areas in shelters, staff training, raised beds for people who need them, a van lift, and due process protections against arbitrary denial of shelter.

Take, for example, the situation faced by Norma Cristo, who uses a wheelchair. Because the city’s transportation van lacks a wheelchair lift, she has to pull herself inside with her one arm and one leg – or be lifted by others – when she needs a ride to the shelter. Then there’s the case of Douglas Ricks, 57, who has a degenerative spine condition and Stage 3 melanoma that has left one arm mostly useless. He finds it nearly impossible to pick himself up from the shelter’s floor mats. Even though he brought a doctor’s order for a raised sleeping surface, such as a cot, the staff repeatedly rebuffed him when he asked for an appropriate accommodation.

The lawsuit charges that not only does Laguna Beach fail to accommodate disabilities among people facing homelessness, it exacerbates those conditions by forcing them to choose between a chaotic shelter or sleeping outside and risking police harassment, fines, fees, and time in jail. Others don’t have even that choice. They are turned away from the shelter for lack of space, and staff are quick to throw them out into the dark canyon if they are disruptive or argumentative, even if those behaviors are rooted in their disabilities. Some have died along the canyon road when denied a place at the shelter.

In response, the lawsuit charges the city’s homeless program with violating Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. It argues that Laguna Beach cannot issue citations for sleeping in public when violators literally have nowhere else to go.

What is most troubling is that mechanisms are already in place that could have prevented a lawsuit. The research consensus is overwhelming that providing permanent supportive housing – that is, permanent affordable apartments with wraparound services like counseling and health care – is the most effective means to address homelessness. The federal government has declared permanent supportive housing the most powerful and cost-efficient health and mental health intervention for people with disabilities who are homeless.

The City and County of Los Angeles have moved affirmatively to adopt these and related methods. In November, voters overwhelmingly approved Measure HHH, which authorizes $1.2 billion in bonds to pay for the construction of 10,000 units of housing for homeless people that will include essential support services. Also, the Los Angeles County Sheriff announced earlier this year that its deputies would be directed not to arrest homeless people for minor offenses that stem from their homelessness.

Orange County has itself crafted a 10-year plan to eliminate homelessness based on this approach – but hasn’t funded it.

A recent ACLU SoCal report detailed cost-effective solutions to implementing the plan. In 2014-15, Laguna Beach considered a permanent supportive housing project proposed by Friendship Shelter, but the project died, despite the fact that the costs could have been covered by outside funding sources. By turning away from the county’s misguided and ineffective program, Laguna Beach could have become a leader in homelessness policy. Instead, the city has chosen the much more expensive alternative of providing only short-term shelter and, like too many other municipalities across the country, citing and arresting homeless people for violating laws against public sleeping and camping.

But there are few places for them to go in in Orange County. As shown in our 2016 ACLU SoCal report, the county has devoted few of its own resources to permanent supportive housing, and county waitlists for what little exists stretch on for years.

A settlement proposal has now been offered in an open letter to the city from the lawsuits’s plaintiffs. The letter provides the city an opportunity to evaluate the needs of homeless people with disabilities – its most vulnerable residents – and comply with the law. It is high time the City changed course and adopted a more effective approach embodied in the proposed settlement.

Mike says that relief he seeks in the lawsuit is not the only reason he became a plaintiff. “I went into the lawsuit both because it’s the right thing to do and with the hope that it would help my situation, he says. “This lawsuit is bigger than me and my problems. If I can do anything to help change people’s attitude about mental illness and the stigma around it, I’ll feel like it’s been worthwhile. Laguna Beach needs to do the right thing.”

Eve Garrow is homelessness policy analyst & advocate at the ACLU of Southern California. 

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

  • LFOldTimer

    The homeless problem in OC is only going to get worse. And LB is prime real estate for homeless people. Think about it. If you were homeless where would you want to hang out? Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Anaheim or Laguna Beach? A lousy one bedroom apartment in OC runs about $1700/mo. Try working a $10-$12/hr job and surviving in OC. Somebody’s got to bus your tables at the Montage Hotel or make your coffee lattes at Starbucks. A third of the county is a paycheck away from being homeless. Not all homeless are crazy or drug addicts, folks. Some just lost a job and can’t afford to make ends meet. Not everyone has rich parents or friends who are willing to provide free room and board. Life is hard. A simple mistake or a turn of events can really put somebody behind the eight ball.

    Trump is trying to change things. He wants to bring jobs back home. Kick the illegals who consume jobs and resources out of the country. Turn schools back into institutions of learning instead of indoctrination centers. Transfer some of the heisted money from the 1% and return it to Main Street. Give the man a chance. Let him work. For once we have a man in the White House who wants to help the commoner. Know who your friends are.

  • verifiedsane

    Is Laguna Beach going to issue their public humane waste deification map next…Creating a Southern Cal San Fransisco, is following a path to failure, while creating a growing permanent problem with zero viable solutions. Laguna will reap exactly what they sow. The clueless policies of offering often ineffective and damaging pills and a squatters prison; instead of offering real hope and a path back into greater society shows the true ignorance of Laguna Beach ( also OC as a whole) public policies when it comes to the homeless population, mental affliction, & their often ominous plight.

    The following quote from a comment copy and pasted below shows how completely out of touch with really many are when it comes to casting condemnation stones from their comfortable glass towers down upon the mentally afflicted castaways of our society today.

    “The story says nothing about the homeless peoples’ responsibilities in
    obtaining mental health services (almost free to those that are truly
    mentally ill) and at following the medication recommendations of their
    psychiatrist and social worker.”

    The castaways of society don’t trust poorly constructed establishment policies or the overlords, because they know from their long established lived experience, that their basic human dignity and their precious individual right to self determination is at stake, and is often times the price being demanded of them. That trade off for most of these forgotten relegated to obscurity populations is viewed as not worth the unreasonable sacrifices/price being placed before them .They often don’t need or want county social services stepping into own them as societal governmental cash cows after all.

    How many of those commenting here have actually sat down with any of these broad stroke painted down trodden to learn the actual path these individuals have traveled, and which has lead them to their current predicament. You might just be very surprised of what you’ll find and learn, when you make the effort to look beyond the stereotypes and hyperbole. There are no one size, fits all solutions.

  • MsPolly

    I have conflicted thoughts on this subject. I think it’s ironic that Laguna is getting picked on given that it likes its reputation of being a bastion of liberalism; no more, however. It’s laden with a fascistic planning commission and city council full of unsatisfied control needs. The residents are largely self-absorbed materialists with a thin coating of ersatz hippiedom. The police, especially one big-hearted corporal, do their best at balancing the rights of the individual homeless person while trying to keep their commander and council at bay. Hearing that the ACLU is looking at Laguna is ironic, indeed.
    The story says nothing about the homeless peoples’ responsibilities in obtaining mental health services (almost free to those that are truly mentally ill) and at following the medication recommendations of their psychiatrist and social worker. Shelter Plus Care (Section 8 housing) is available on fairly short notice for those that meet certain criteria. Sure, they won’t be living along the coast of Laguna but there will be a roof over their head and help at their door.
    The truth is that homeless shouldn’t be made comfortable for people as it does not provide an incentive for movement to a more traditional way of living–living responsibly.
    The truth is that more than a few of the homeless in Laguna are not mentally ill. They are the same bohemian-types that populate Portland, Oregon and Prague, Czech Republic.
    The truth is that for a homeless solution to happen, effective services need to be organized in an assembly-line like manner and it’s either “go through our process or receive NO other support.”
    “If you build it they will come,” right? We’ve built a system that encourages people to wander around aimlessly. We’re not doing them any favors with the current system, obviously–because we are getting more of them…all over the place. It’s gross that they have to live this way. It’s gross that we, as taxpayers, have to witness this. It’s just gross.

    • Patricia Harrigan Wilson

      The residents are largely self-absorbed materialists with a thin coating of ersatz hippiedom.

      What a nasty thing to say. I’ve lived here 24 years and can say that comment is not only wrong but obnoxious !

      • MsPolly

        Have you been to a planning commission meeting lately?

    • verifiedsane

      There is little doubt there are those that chose to live a home free life style, and know exactly how to work the system to their advantage. Yet, those individuals are a very small segment of the without a stick home population. Many times you’ll find the street population are marginalized outcast from established societal norms which include parolees, the drug/alcohol addicted, mentally afflicted, habitually jobless, physically in-firmed, seniors, wayward youth, situational/circumstantial house-less, and much more. There is not a standard one size fits all definition of being without home.

      I would suggest you try placing aside everything you own besides what you can stuff into a day-pack without your ATM card, cash, or credit cards; then go live on the streets for just one week. Try sleeping in a shelter for a few nights, receive some handout food, and experience the reality of being without home. Then come back here and share your experience with everyone. I will go out on a limb and predict your opinions and views related to this topic would change dramatically.

      • Patricia Harrigan Wilson

        None of that has anything to do with your obnoxious comment denigrating all residents of Laguna Beach !

        • verifiedsane

          My obnoxious comment? what planet are you commenting from?….read Patricia read….it appears that you’re are spreading your very own hilltop version of denigrating poison. 🙂

          • Patricia Harrigan Wilson

            I thought I was replying to someone else, sorry.

      • MsPolly

        I know of what I speak as I spent many years of my life providing services to this population. Yes, there are many paths to homelessness. I’ve been to shelters, flop houses, county clinics, B&Cs, detoxes, etc. and my opinion is informed by these experiences. Laguna Beach is a magnet and is bearing the brunt in this problem with no currently tried solution.

        • Patricia Harrigan Wilson

          “The residents are largely self-absorbed materialists with a thin coating of ersatz hippiedom.”

          Put your broad brush down. Who are you to judge people you know nothing about ?

        • Lisa

          “Providing services” is not the same as needing services. The old cliche that it is better to give than to receive is especially true when it comes to helping the homeless. Your “informed” opinion betrays your ignorance and your arrogance. If you have a safe place to live and food to eat, then you don’t know what it’s like to be homeless.

  • Patricia Harrigan Wilson

    Laguna Beach could have become a leader in homelessness policy. Laguna Beach already is a leader in homelessness policy. Newport Beach, Irvine and other cities but their homeless here and dump them because Laguna Beach does so much for the homeless. It’s time for all OC cities to step up and do there part. ACLU needs to back off Laguna Beach !