Johnson: Homelessness in Laguna Beach – Tragedy and Hope

For people experiencing homelessness in Laguna Beach and for homeless advocates, such as myself, August has been marked by stark contrast – the tragedy of another preventable death, followed by the sense of hope that accompanies filing a lawsuit to defend the civil rights and redress needless suffering of people experiencing homelessness.

In the early hours of Friday, August 7, Richard McCrary, a married homeless man, was killed by a vehicle along Laguna Canyon Road outside of Laguna Beach’s only emergency shelter. Mr. McCrary is only the latest homeless person killed or seriously injured by traffic along this dangerous stretch of road.

According to witnesses, Mr. McCrary and his wife had parked their vehicle in the shelter’s parking lot but moved it to the street after Laguna Beach Police told them that they could not sleep in their vehicle in the lot. Later, while either getting into or out of his vehicle, Mr. McCrary was struck by a passing vehicle and subsequently died of his injuries. While this incident apparently was an accident, the City of Laguna Beach created the circumstances that led to this death.

The City of Laguna Beach and its police department engage in a number of strategies designed to remove visible evidence of homelessness from its idyllic downtown core and nearby beaches. These strategies can make it impossible for homeless people to engage in innocent activities that those of us with apartments or houses take for granted – such as sleeping or resting – without fear of punishment or harassment.

The City’s homelessness program provides only limited shelter – often inaccessible to those with disabilities – along with aggressive enforcement against individuals forced to sleep outside because they cannot access this shelter. Not only do Laguna Beach Police ticket homeless persons sleeping in the downtown or beach areas, they often sweep the shelter parking lot, issuing tickets to people they find sleeping after being turned away from the shelter.

The shelter is located approximately two-and-a-half miles from downtown along a winding stretch of Laguna Canyon Road. To avoid citation, some individuals who are turned away travel along this stretch of road – after dark – in order to find another place to sleep where they are less likely to be awakened and ticketed by the police. Several homeless persons have been killed or injured while traveling along Laguna Canyon Road.

The circumstances faced by people experiencing homelessness in Laguna Beach are horrifying, but I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with brave clients to seek change and justice on their behalf and am hopeful that we will prevail. The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, along with our co-counsel at Paul Hastings, recently filed a lawsuit to challenge the City’s treatment of homeless persons, particularly those with disabilities.

The experiences of one of our homeless clients, Kenny Glover, illustrates the detrimental effects of the City’s program. Kenny, an Orange County native who has been homeless in Laguna Beach since 2011, suffers from depression and alcoholism. For several years, Glover has tried to sleep at the shelter but is only able to get a space about twice a week. He is grateful for a place to sleep, but finds the often crowded, chaotic shelter environment difficult to cope with because of his disabilities.

On nights when he is turned away, he has no legal place to sleep. On one such night, Kenny slept in the shelter parking lot and was cited by the police for sleeping outdoors. He explained, “I ask the officers where I am supposed to go, but they have no answer for me.” Since then, he has tried to avoid the parking lot and instead seeks secluded spots on the beach or in surrounding areas where he can avoid the police.

One night, Kenny was riding his bicycle along Laguna Canyon Road after being unable to secure a shelter spot and was hit by a car. He suffered a disabling injury to his right hand which has made it even more difficult to find work. Since then, he has received a number of tickets for sleeping outside. The extreme stress and anxiety of searching for shelter each night has worsened his depression.

Kenny desperately wants a safe, legal place where he can sleep. Because of his disabilities, the most appropriate placement for Kenny is permanent supportive housing, that is, housing with the supportive services needed for him to stay housed including mental health treatment and case management. However the city has so far rejected the efforts of the local service provider, Friendship Shelter, to create this needed resource within the city.

In the lawsuit, we challenge the city’s homelessness program on the grounds it discriminates against, criminalizes, and endangers disabled, homeless persons living in Laguna Beach and violates their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. We seek both permanent supportive housing and an injunction limiting aggressive police enforcement tactics.

In filing this case, I have another reason to be hopeful – the ACLU is not alone in opposing the way homeless individuals are treated in places like Laguna Beach. This month, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in support of homeless plaintiffs in a similar legal challenge in Boise, Idaho and determined that local government policies criminalizing homelessness are “both unconstitutional and misguided public policy.” The government’s statement of interest brief said rather than “helping people to regain housing, obtain employment, or access needed treatment and service, criminalization creates a costly revolving door that circulates individuals experiencing homelessness from the street to the criminal justice system and back.”

Many homeless persons and advocates have expressed hope that the Justice Department’s involvement will signal a shift away from such cruel and destructive treatment of some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Heather Maria Johnson is a Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Southern California’s Dignity for All Project.

Update: The City Manager of Laguna Beach, John Pietig, responded to Voice of OC’s request for a reply; read it here.

Update: We reached out to the City of Laguna Beach offering to run a column from their side. We’re waiting to hear back. In the meantime, if you want your voice heard email jgallego@voiceofoc.org.