The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Thursday against Laguna Beach over treatment of disabled homeless people in the picturesque seaside town.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, claims the city is engaged in a campaign of harassment against the homeless while providing only limited emergency shelter that is often inaccessible to the disabled.
Laguna Beach City Manager John Pietig countered that not only does the city provide the only municipal year-round shelter in Orange County, but between the facility and related programs and services, the town spends more than $350,000 a year addressing the needs of the homeless.
“It is very disappointing to be a target of the ACLU given the city’s proven track record of being a leader in providing services to the homeless community,” Pietig said.
The lawsuit on behalf of five chronically homeless individuals with mental and physical disabilities, including a homeless veteran, seeks to require Laguna Beach officials to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act by providing needed supportive housing — housing with wrap-around services such as mental health care and case management — appropriate for chronically homeless persons with disabilities.
“Laguna Beach is best known as an affluent, idyllic seaside art colony, but a small, yet significant portion of the population suffers from mental and physical disabilities that leave them unable to access housing,” plaintiffs’ attorney Kristopher Wood said. “The City refuses to provide permanent supportive housing that would alleviate the problem; yet continues to cite physically and mentally disabled homeless individuals who have no other option for sleeping outdoors. That conduct is simply illegal under the ADA and the Constitution.”
The lawsuit also challenges the city’s practice of ticketing disabled, homeless persons who can’t access the shelter for sleeping or lodging in public as cruel and unusual punishment.
In 2008, the ACLU of Southern California challenged a Laguna Beach ordinance that allowed police to ticket homeless individuals who had no other place to sleep. That case was settled, with the city agreeing to repeal sections of the ordinance that prohibited sleeping or camping in public places.
Following that lawsuit, a shelter was established, according to the ACLU.
However, after the end of the settlement period, Laguna Beach officials reinstated the old prohibitions and police resumed ticketing homeless individuals, the vast majority of whom have mental or physical disabilities and often have difficulty accessing the shelter, the civil rights organization said.
“With a population of just over 23,000, Laguna Beach is a very welcoming place for some,” said Belinda Escobosa Helzer, director of ACLU’s Orange County office. “But if you happen to be a homeless resident with disabilities, the city makes sure to let you know you are not welcome. This is a city with the resources to address the issue as required by law.”
Pietig said the city’s homeless shelter — known as the Alternative Sleeping Location — provides air conditioning, heat, laundry facilities, showers, sleeping mats and blankets, evening meals, storage, and van service to the facility from the downtown bus depot. The shelter is operated by the Friendship Shelter, a local non-profit organization, under contract with the city, he said.
— Wire reports