ACLU’s Misguided Lawsuit Against Laguna Beach



(Editor’s note: The following is an opinion piece by John Pietig, the City Manager of Laguna Beach.)

After substantial investment in services for homeless individuals, the City of Laguna Beach must again defend itself from a lawsuit by the ACLU. The ACLU’s circuitous logic for suing the City twice in six years is irrational and begs the question: “When will enough be enough for the ACLU?”

Prior to the opening of the City’s Alternative Sleeping Location on November 12, 2009, Laguna’s beaches and parks were overwhelmed by encampments of homeless individuals on a long-term basis. After more than two years of debate and reports from a task force and a citizen advisory committee, the City opened the first year-round municipal homeless shelter in Orange County. Literally overnight, people in need were accommodated in facilities, essential services were provided, and the encampments disappeared.

The current Alternative Sleeping Location (ASL) is still the only one of its kind in the County and has operated continuously since replacing the initial facility in June 2010. The new ASL has room for 45 people, provides a heated and cooled building with restrooms, showers, meals, laundry facilities, sleeping mats, blankets, computer access, a safe environment, a case worker to assist with connecting people with other services to assist them and separate van transportation to and from downtown Laguna Beach.

The facility has ramps, doorways and restroom facilities designed to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. It is open from 5 p.m. to 10 a.m., seven days a week, 365 days a year. The cost to operate the facility and provide services is $350,000 a year. To date, the ASL has provided over 93,000 bed nights to those in need.

The community worked together to establish the ASL and still pulls together for its operation. The City invested $325,000 initially to create the facilities and the former Resource Center contributed $60,000. The Friendship Shelter operates the current facility under a contract with the City; Mercy House provides advice and guidance on operations; Mission Hospital donates lunches; the Laguna Food Pantry provides food for breakfast; evening meals are provided by local churches and community groups; and the County provides grants and mental health workers when it can. There are many others who volunteer to make this facility a success. The ASL truly is a model of community partnership.

Given the lack of facilities throughout Orange County, the City knew that it could not house all those in need. The capacity of the ASL was determined with regard to historical estimates of the size of the homeless community in Laguna Beach. Criteria were established to first house those with local ties to the community – people who had gone to school in town, lived in town, or had relatives in town. When the ASL first opened, those who had been long-term homeless in town were also considered to have local ties. Those with local ties are allowed first access to the facility at night and a lottery is held for the remaining beds. Bus passes are usually available for new people to town who were not able to be accommodated in the ASL.

The City has also helped more than 70 people connect with their family and friends for support, continues to participate in the Homeless Court program to help people resolve outstanding legal issues that may be barriers to future employment and self-sufficiency, and has provided painted parking meters to collect funds for homeless services. In short, the Laguna Beach has acted responsibly and in good faith to address its community needs.

When the ASL facility opened, we thought the ACLU would be supportive and, if the program were successful, as it has been, tout it as a model for others. Instead, the ACLU is now saying that an alternative sleeping location with services and amenities is not adequate and that Laguna Beach is obligated to fund and provide permanent supportive housing – basically apartments – for all disabled homeless individuals who happen to be in or coming to town.

The City has discussed a permanent supportive housing facility with the Friendship Shelter. It is not yet clear if there is an appropriate site for such a facility in Laguna Beach but the Friendship Shelter should be recognized for its success at housing 21 people in permanent supportive housing projects in southern Orange County since 2014, most of whom came through the ASL. The Friendship Shelter has also secured funding for an additional 23 units that could open later this year.

In conclusion, Laguna Beach is already providing extensive facilities and support services to assist homeless persons and deserves the ACLU’s recognition for the City’s unparalleled efforts on behalf of homeless individuals. Instead, the ACLU has filed an ill-advised lawsuit. The City believes that its policies and actions fully comply with the law and the City Council has unanimously decided to vigorously defend the City against the lawsuit.

Read the ACLU’s suit here: Johnson: Homelessness in Laguna Beach — Tragedy and Hope

  • Tall Talk

    maybe the laguna home owners should open their extra bedrooms for those in need. this would get the homeless off the beach and the streets….

    until the word gets out….then people leave their actual homes in places they don’t want to live, become homeless in laguna, and be taken care of by a rich homeowner there, who has an extra bedroom….

    none of these things will work long-term. homeless shelters or any other mandatory thing…this will not help.

    its hard to look at the state of the world right now, but that’s about all that can be done. these problems are too big to fix.

  • Roger Butow

    LB City Councilwoman Toni (The Red Queen) Iseman said that they’re like pigeons or seagulls: The more often you feed them the more that’ll be flocking here someday. Pretty humane thinking, huh?

    And I didn’t say that the ACLU is wrong: It’s just that the timing is very suspicious. The FS pushes for a permanent site they’ve identified in Laguna Canyon, a year or so of controversy & outrage from adjacent residents/businesses follows, then in June the City Manager tells the FS that they won’t get it their way—within weeks the lawsuit that line-by-line mimes the FS wish list “magically appears” out of nowhere.

    The City isn’t afraid, and never experiences this as a burden, it’s not their money they spend—More like the nuisance that Iseman alluded to. Alleging that City Hall is compassionate, though funny, is not the point.

    This is about $$$ and power, the lesser of evils: Chose the Canyon Critters or chose the apathetic remaining, conscience-less voters that don’t live or have a business in this already over-burdened zone. Eventually Laguna Canyon Road will be gridlocked year round because the City has tweaked the zoning to allow that—anything that keeps the homeless out of downtown or on our beaches.

    I’ll wager that by Christmas the suit disappears and a permanent facility in the Canyon is back on the table.

    As for saving $$$, Dr. Zaejian, how does one monetize the impact this facility will have on its neighbors? People bought rural/bucolic and quiet, they get this and should have expected it?

  • Jasenn Zaejian, Ph.D.

    The ACLU is addressing the crucial issue creating homelessness. Permanent supportive housing, along with a menu of educative and support services has demonstrated, time and time again, consistent with world wide research, that a community adopting such a plan will spend much less on other services, including public safety services that engage homeless people, improve lives, personal productivity, self esteem, and drastically reduce “mental illness.”

    • lagoona

      Precisely so. The weapon the City has on its side is fear. Let’s examine this more carefully, however. Homelessness is a burden on everyone: the person experiencing it, his exasperated family and friends, the angry store owner or restaurateur, the resident, the tourist, the ER staff, the police officer, the EMT, and yes the city manager and elected council member. The answer is in front of us. It is supportive housing. Laguna Beach is not too good for it.

  • Roger Butow

    I couldn’t agree more. Those of us who live here (I have for 43 years) know the back story in this tale.

    Ironically, if you go over to the link that VoOC provided in an earlier column which gives the Notice of Intent to litigate docs, it aligns/mirrors the press release issued by the Friendship Shelter (FS)—that press release is in our local media.

    So the ACLU’s checklist is nearly identical. Isn’t that interesting?
    And for those who know how slick and oftentimes deceitful City officials are, it is rather disingenuous that ours fails to note that.

    Actually, without doing a “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” what’s really going on is obvious: The FS isn’t getting its way with the City, note that in the press release by them it is confirmed that the proposed permanent site vetted a few years ago in Laguna Canyon was nixed about 3 months ago?

    The way to leverage, to expedite is have the ACLU sue (in reality a ruse on behalf of the FS), the City throws up its hands, they all sit down in an arbitration/settlement conference, negotiate the terms & conditions for a new, permanent facility.

    It might even be at the same location the City alleged a no-go back in June. The City will proclaim to the Canyon residents opposed to this nightmare among them (and just about everyone in the Canyon IS opposed to always being a dumping ground for some City Hall adverse purpose) that they had no choice but capitulate. “We tried. Sorry. We had no choice.”

    Everyone gets what they want, no blood shed (not much $$$ spent on attorneys), the City looks good for being hard-liners for their image, and Canyon residents get the facility shoe-horned into their zone. For City Hall, it’s out of sight, out of mind—Not one upper echelon staff member, not one major standing committee/commission member, not one Councilperson lives there. They could care less.

    It reeks of collusion between the City, the FS & the ACLU. Everybody EXCEPT the Canyon residents get what they want.

    • lagoona

      Most of this makes sense, but I have it on solid authority that Friendship Shelter has absolutely nothing to do with the ACLU lawsuit. You can believe it does, but the nonprofit’s administrators were taken by surprise with this lawsuit. Lawsuits are not their style. That is a solid fact.

      • Roger Butow

        You have it on “solid authority?” It’s not very solid if you can’t disprove my (as you admit) reasonable hypothesis. I didn’t write that the FS litigates. Of course it’s not their style but this is actually a pretty savvy tactic.
        Detectives always say there’s no such thing as a coincidence. I have a hard time believing, after getting involved as a consultant fighting such recent monolithic development projects in the Canyon, that any fair argument viewer could deduce otherwise—it’s pretty convenient for the parties presently at loggerheads.
        75 days after the FS is hearing “NO” the ACLU files, about as long as it woulds take to put together a boilerplate suit.
        In my client’s case, it was regarding a 30-unit bogus artist’s work/live project, one the City actually helped via a rezoning specially tailored to the unique proposal. Don’t tell me that the City doesn’t cut backroom deals. That’s a fact.
        The City gets off the hook with the Canyon home & business owners who don’t want what’s there let alone a permanent facility. The FS doesn’t end up “the bad guy,” keeping their warm & fuzzy image, no blood on their hands. And the ACLU is the stalking horse, the driver, none of THEM live out there either.
        Detectives in their investigations ask “Qui bono?” (Who profited?).
        Well, the trifecta of the City, FS & the ACLU, that’s who.
        The ACLU gets to look vigilant, and the FS/City partnership gets to say “Hey, don’t blame me. It was a surprise sneak attack.” That’s pretty hard to swallow, to be gullible enough to take at face value.
        Look for who profited. And I think it’s quaint that you’d believe hearsay—-Did it occur to you that a lot of stealth, a lot of ex-parte undisclosed meetings took place?
        C’mon, this City isn’t any better/different that the ones here in VoOC that manipulate, cut deals in closed sessions, bars or restaurants. A few hundred outraged home/business owners were weighed against the City Hall’s image & self interests.
        Anyone who doesn’t know that’s how government works is terribly naive.

        • lagoona

          As I said, you can believe what you want. The parallel desire of Friendship Shelter and the ACLU is to help homeless people. There is no conspiracy. The nonprofit is not behind this. Period.

  • lagoona

    Frank, can you show me the red carpet that Laguna Beach has rolled out? Have you by any chance spent time at the ASL in Laguna Canyon? Once the 45 mats on the floor (4 inches in thickness at most, my, what luxury!) have been spoken for each evening, everyone else has to hit the road. This has created a Wild West situation in the parking lot. It is the City’s doing, and they know it. They went partway and then stopped, knowing that if it appears that they have thrown money at the problem, the housed people of Laguna can go back to their lives and wring their hands when discontent is expressed at the ineffectiveness and expense of this empty (but costly) gambit.

    People coming to the adjacent Laguna Food Pantry – either those getting food or volunteers – have to run a gamut of homeless people living in the parking area who obviously need help with their mental illnesses. There’s no access to water or a bathroom, the city has seen to that. This is not “bending over backward” – it’s shutting up the housed people about having homeless folks in their midst, sleeping on the beaches and in parks. It makes those who read the occasional news story feel better about themselves and make assumptions about “how much Laguna is doing” for homeless people.

    The city knows what is needed. There is simply not sufficient political will or vision to stand up and LEAD our city toward the proven, COST-SAVING way of helping homeless people: with housing, paired with ongoing assistive services so residents regain their dignity and get better, to whatever extent that may be.

    Important to note that it’s NOT a matter of the city creating or paying for a multi-unit building where people can live. It’s merely allowing for a site to be named and letting it move forward under nonprofit Friendship Shelter’s leadership. The proposed idea last year was to help 40 residents of the ASL parking lot to get well and get on with their lives, and to still offer an “alternative sleeping location” for another 35 or so homeless people who would otherwise risk getting ticketed for sleeping in public (they usually move along on their own).

    We are NOT talking about handing out free apartments to every backpacking drifter passing through town, as Pietig asserts. That is a completely false, Fox News-type thing for him to have written and shared publicly. He knows that if he says it it will get repeated even though it’s a total lie. I would urge you to beware what you are being told by your friendly local government – dig deeper, ask questions. Avoid assumptions. Get the real story.

  • Frank

    The problem with providing more and more services for the homeless is that more and more homeless will find their way to the city for the services provided there. It is a vicious cycle as other cities have found out. The goal should be to get them off your streets and into a self-sufficient lifestyle. Unfortunately, that is not what many want, so some cities have criminalized sleeping overnight on the beaches and in parks; have forced them to clean up their trash or have it done for them and the ACLU comes after those cities because they do not care what affect the homeless have on a city as long as that city rolls out the red carpet to attract even more.

    • lagoona

      Frank, your comment is based on nothing but your opinion and assumptions.

      Show me the data: “The problem with providing more and more services for the homeless is that MORE AND MORE HOMLESS WILL FIND THEIR WAY TO THE CITY FOR THE SERVICES PROVIDED THERE.” (how do you know this?)

      Show me the data: “get them off your streets and into a self-sufficient lifestyle….THAT IS NOT WHAT MANY WANT.” (how do you know this?)

      Show me the data (again, same baseless assumption): they do not care what affect the homeless have on a city as long as that city rolls out the red carpet to ATTRACT EVEN MORE.” (how do you know this? And did you see the red carpet you mention? View it here, top photo: )
      It’s actually a foam mat six inches from the next person sleeping on the floor, who may be sick, crying, drunk…this is not a solution. It’s a Band-Aid approach that keeps homeless people stuck in a cycle of despair. But it IS expensive, and it DOES make people think the city is “doing something,” when in fact it could be spending a lot less per person – 50% less to be exact – on housing and services than it does now on jail time, ER, police and fire services. Google “supportive housing” and read up on the massive data that says this is working in communities across the nation and in Canada.

      I would posit that you – and your harsh judgments of your fellow human beings – are part of the problem that so many people say can’t be solved because of your lack of both hard data to back up your opinion and a dire lack of imagination.

      • Frank

        Talk about making assumptions! I was born and raised in a city that went down this path. In the 1970’s, we built more and more “affordable” housing that attracted those who had been priced out of the LA market. We also became a haven for the homeless. I have worked on homeless issues and have served meals in food kitchens. I have picked up trash left by the homeless on our streets and in the parks that families no longer feel safe in because the homeless have taken them over. I have seen our property values decline drastically and the problem grow ever larger. While I rejoice in those that take advantage of the resources we offer and manage to get back on a path to self-sufficiency, I get frustrated by those who would rather live on the street and panhandle (some with mental issues) than live with a roof over their head. I was not implying that Laguna has rolled out any red carpet. What they have established is a good program designed to help their homeless, not attract more. I don’t think the ACLU gives a rat’s behind what happens to our cities when large numbers of homeless move into them and camp in the parks and leave trash wherever they congregate.

        • lagoona

          It’s a perplexing and deep-seated problem with many facets. It plays on the ugliest and most frightening fears we have of each other and of how things can go wrong for those with comfortable lives. It’s tempting to blame and feel angry toward those who live on our streets – and those tend to be the default emotions for many. But blaming and punishing won’t change anything for anyone. We have to look at the hard, cold facts of the economics (it takes more money to leave people on the street than to house and help them), suck it up and do what has been proven to work – even if we feel the recipients are undeserving, lazy, ugly, smelly, or whatever – instead of wringing our hands and kicking the can down the road. Let’s get on with it. The more communities that have supportive housing – since we now have no mental institutions other than jails for our mentally ill – the better off all communities will be. Gotta start someplace.

  • tinroof

    It is very disheartening that after bending over backwards to accommodate homeless people the ACLU still feels it should sue the city.

    • lagoona

      Don’t assume. Walk a mile in a homeless person’s shoes and you’ll see how “accommodating” the city is toward homeless people. The obvious, cost-effective solution proven to work in other cities across the country is supportive housing – the city government works hard to ignore this.

    • lagoona

      What they do is protect the Constitutional rights of all individuals. Nothing more, nothing less. A just and equitable society doesn’t just happen.

  • jcbl

    “When will enough be enough for the ACLU?” The answer of course is never. It’s what they do.