The ACLU filed a lawsuit on Dec. 23, 2008 against the city of Laguna Beach, its council members and police department on behalf of the homeless people of Laguna Beach. The suit claims that the city’s anti-sleeping ordinances result in an unconstitutional harassment of homeless people. The city’s police illegally conduct ‘sweeps’, picking up homeless people from the streets and subjecting them to interrogations in the middle of the night.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, claims the town is engaged in a campaign of harassment against the homeless while providing no year-round city-sponsored shelters. The 21-page complaint focuses on an ordinance that criminalizes sleeping on the street, which ACLU attorneys said is unconstitutional and discriminatory.
The town of about 25,000 nestled on bluffs above coves and tide pools is famous for its art galleries and festivals, trendy boutiques and luxury hilltop homes with Pacific vistas. The community, with a median home price of about $1.3 million, was also the setting of MTV’s hit reality show “Laguna Beach.”
“There are even more art galleries than homeless residents,” said Mark Rosenbaum, ACLU’s legal director for Southern California. “Yet city leaders have chosen to attempt to eliminate the homeless, rather than eliminate homelessness.”
Interview: ACLU Sues Laguna Beach Over Treatment of Homeless
Quotes below from INTERVIEW on 89.3 KPCC
December 24, 2008
Susan Valot [interviewer]: The ACLU’s Mark Rosenbaum says Laguna Beach police are constantly waking up homeless people, questioning and fining them for various violations. One of the laws they’re enforcing is a 1950s-era ordinance that makes sleeping on the street illegal. Rosenbaum says the enforcement amounts to criminalizing poverty and disability.
Mark Rosenbaum: One homeless woman was interrogated by the police. She was directed to extinguish her cigarette. She did that. She was then arrested for littering and told that she had to pay a $366 fine or post a bond of $366, obviously way out of her means.
Valot: Advocates say Laguna Beach officials also aren’t providing adequate services for the several dozen regular homeless people who call the beach community home. Rosenbaum says that leaves them with no place to go. Homeless advocate James Keegan says the continuous citations contribute to the cycle of homelessness.
James Keegan: These are not crimes in the way we commonly think of crime. They’re lifestyle things. But then an employer’s got two guys that he’s going to, you know: two candidates. One of them’s got, you know, 50 citations, and the other has none. Who you going to hire?
Valot: The city says it’s been taking steps to address its homeless problem. It says it formed a task force a year ago and has since hired a community outreach officer. A city official says Laguna Beach also contributes money to a cold-weather shelter run by local churches.
ACLU Sues City On Behalf of Homeless
By WILLIAM HAGLE
Mark Sipprelle, a father of two and a Laguna public school graduate, lives in town, literally. Three surgeries have not corrected the injury to his foot. He volunteers at the Resource Center and picks up beach trash.
Laguna native Helene Ayres, 65, once an accomplished dancer and certified nurse assistant, sleeps in public because she has no place to go.
Epilepsy sufferer Felipe Ruiz, 47, lost his job three months ago at a Laguna auto body repair shop. His four children and six grandchildren have nowhere to visit him, and he struggles to keep his seizures under control.
Robert Carmichael, too emaciated and frail to move comfortably, once drove a tow truck. He gets around by wheelchair, but was recently hit In and around by a driver who fled the scene.
A federal lawsuit was filed Dec. 23 on behalf of these four chronically homeless individuals against the city of Laguna Beach, its council members and police department by a high-octane legal team. The suit claims the city’s anti-sleeping ordinances amount to unconstitutional harassment through illegal “sweeps” where the homeless population is subject to middle-of-the-night interrogations and citations. No monetary damages are sought, except legal fees, and relief for Laguna’s homeless, a population described in a city task force report as no more than 55 people, all of them suffering from mental or physical disabilities.
The ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the Newport Beach lawyers from Irell & Manella, and Erwin Chermerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s law school, filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, reportedly the first of its kind in the nation.
“This year, the role of Scrooge goes to these Laguna city leaders,” said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU in southern California. “In Laguna Beach, there are more art galleries than city shelter beds for homeless people. Yet city leaders are criminalizing a group of people who struggle on a daily basis to cope with their mental illnesses or other disabilities, whether aware of them or not, and who are seeking no more than the comfort and values of this season within their community.”
The suit alleges Laguna Beach’s efforts to aid the homeless community are a subterfuge to minimize the homeless population’s impact on the city’s image and businesses, rather than assisting them.
Assistant City Manager John Pietig, a member of the city’s homeless city task force, was cautious in his comments, since the city had not been formally served. “We have not cited people for sleeping on public property since February, except for one exception in November,” he said.
Among the 14 recommendations made by the homeless task force, which were adopted in January by the City Council, was support for a homeless shelter, which has yet to come to fruition despite a $100,000 pledge from city coffers.
The complaint claims “there are no beds regularly available in town,” other than an itinerant cold weather shelter, which opens 40 nights a year in various churches. Physical or mental disabilities, the suit says, impede many homeless from complying with the requirements of privately run Friendship Shelter, which offers 31 beds for those accepted into their program.
Friendship Shelter’s director Dawn Price was unavailable for comment.
The complaint also cited the city’s denial of necessary permits that would have permitted a shelter, proposed by the Laguna Relief and Resource Center in Laguna Canyon. Nearby residents opposed the plan.
Ed Sauls, chairman of the resource center as well as the city’s homeless task force, disagreed with the suit’s characterization of city ordinances as “criminal.” “Ordinances were within the realm of the legal world,” he said. “We weren’t experts.”
The task force considered recommending the city abandon its anti-camping ordinance, but thought such a tactic premature before other recommendations were adopted, said Sauls, disappointed that efforts to establish an emergency shelter did not succeed.
The Resource Center, itself facing homelessness, earlier this month negotiated a three-year lease, allowing the operation to remain in Laguna Canyon though at a higher monthly lease, Sauls said. Habitat for Humanity has offered to rewire the aging facility to code, pending permits. Sauls counts that as a major blessing. “A lot of laundry gets done out there,” he said, though an envisioned expansion of shelter beds will not be possible in the small quarters.