Candidate for Council spends a couple of evenings at the ASL

I live in an area called Top of the World, or TOW for short in Laguna Beach, California. It feels like the top of the world. It’s about a mile straight up from the Village. Looking down at the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by what seems like endless canyons and hills, dotted with lovely homes and prehistoric looking vegetation, it’s a magical place. A little bit like living in a Dr. Seuss book. 

Running for any public office is daunting. I don’t know why I thought running for City Council would be easier than any other campaign. I guess I thought that because I was already on the Affordable Housing Task Force, it would be a natural transition. I was wrong. It’s all-consuming at times. It’s like the first time on a rollercoaster, with all the exhilarating highs and the gut-wrenching lows. 

During the high points of this ride, my creative juices will get going thinking about bringing life back to the Village. Turning current, unused commercial space into cool urban lofts. Affordable to young urban professionals, seniors on a budget, artists and young families. We could also build prefab, innovative homes, up to three bedrooms, erected on available land owned by the Village. The town could rent them for $1,000 to $2,400. One quarter of the person or family’s monthly income. Plus, if the town was the renter, that could make money for the Village. A win-win. 

Inevitably, the question of the homeless came up. Shouldn’t we take care of them before others who might have options like Affordable Housing? Where did they come from? I would see the homeless along Laguna Canyon Road, sometimes in the Village but always on Main Beach. Hidden in the nooks and crannies of this incredibly beautiful town, with its quaint shops, shady lanes and unbelievable views, you would see the homeless every once and a while. Sometimes muttering to themselves or asking for a handout, often holding a sign pleading their case. They were a chronic reminder that where I was living was a bit of an illusion. The residents of Laguna Beach are eclectic. Modern hippy chic, cottage preppy and cosmopolitan. There are cars that look like they just drove off a movie sets, and dogs, dogs, dogs.

As the campaign heated up, more and more candidates were appearing on Nextdoor, a popular neighborhood website. Back and forth the issues would be argued among candidates and residents. A candidate would weigh in on one of the town’s many project problems, especially money that is seemingly disappearing into the “Village Entrance.” Another hot topic was dealing with parking and car congestion. One day, a man named Tim was answering someone else’s question about the homeless being brought here by police officers from Newport and being dropped off in Laguna Beach. He had spoken to an officer who told him it had only happened a couple of times. The officer was in a rough spot. How was he supposed to turn down someone walking along a dangerous road and not take them to Laguna Beach when they asked?

Why should Laguna Beach pay for another city’s homeless? I couldn’t believe it. Newport didn’t want them, so they were bused here? This was a Friday night and I was full of outrage. I told Tim that as a candidate for City Council and I would get to the bottom of this even if it took me all the next day. I would show everyone the “true” story. I was on a mission and full of confidence that I could stop this indecent practice. 

Next day. Saturday. Every service agency was closed, or the director wouldn’t be in till Monday. I decided the only thing to do was go directly to the source. I had driven past the ASL (Alternative Sleeping Location) dozens of times. I would sigh and say to myself, “But for the Grace…” and I would continue driving and not give it a second thought. That’s where the really bad homeless stayed. The tweaked-out, drunk, and violent. This time though, I would drive in and be incognito. I was going to get the truth. Not some watered-down version given to city officials or concerned citizens. I was confident I could handle anything that came way. 

I parked and walked to a small, one story building that I later found out it was called “The Box”. It was a typical galvanized aluminum framed building. The kind you see at construction sites. It was larger than one of those trailers. About three times as large if they were to place the trailers side by side. There were people standing around, disheveled, looking depressed. There were dogs too. A couple of dogs that were being lovingly cared for by homeless individuals. Each had a backpack or blankets on the ground, in their own space, strategically placed about seven or eight feet from each other. 

I walked into the Box and asked where I could sign up for a bed. There was a nice man at the by the main entrance that I just knew worked there and wasn’t homeless. I don’t know why I knew he wasn’t homeless. Maybe because he wasn’t dirty, or more likely because he didn’t have “that” look on his face. He had purpose. He was at ease and had life in his eyes. He did work there and told me to write my name down on the white board and they would do a lottery at 6:45. I could leave but had to be back soon. 

I left. I hurried home and got blankets, a towel and a pillow. I bought some water, protein bars and cigarettes. I saw too many prison movies. Was sure cigarettes were currency. I went back down and rushed to find out if I got a bed. They weren’t “beds” but neon blue mats on the floor. About a foot apart. 45 beds in total. There were three washing machines and three showers. One toilet for women and one for men. The men and women were separated by a row of fold out tables. Anxiously, we waited for our name to be called. I didn’t get a bed. I didn’t know what that meant. Where was I supposed to go?

It meant I would have to sleep outside and not just outside, but outside the chain link fence that surrounded the Box. That was scary. There were younger men in the lot who seemed rowdy and drunk. Some women outside too, but they were quiet, and I think were pretending to be asleep. About twenty altogether in the parking lot outside the safety of the fence. The lighting was bad, so I thought I would try a sad story and maybe they would take pity on me and let me sleep in the corner, inside. I told them I didn’t need a mat. They asked if I came there in a car. I said yes, and they said I should consider myself one of the lucky ones. I could sleep in my car. They suggested I lock the doors. I asked how long I could stay in the Box before I had to leave. They said I could stay inside till about ten thirty. 

I placed my stuff near one of the workers and asked if they wouldn’t mind watching my things for bit. I was told no, and to be careful. A lot of theft happened in the Box. I put stuff in the car and locked it and went back in. I was hanging around the people sitting outside but within the Box’s fence. I wanted to hear their stories. Not many wanted to talk till I showed them my cigarettes. I was right. It was currency. 

For a cigarette, I could get a life story. The first person I spoke to was Mary (not her real name); she was pretty. She was tall with long brown hair and a sweet smile. She was also about seven months pregnant. I asked her how she ended up here. She told me it was her ex. He tried to kill her, and the domestic violence services were also at capacity. “They just hand you a bunch of numbers and wish you luck.”  At that point, a woman in her forties, Dawn (also not her real name), came and sat with us. Another cigarette, and another story. 

She too was there running from a killer she said. “If he finds me I’m dead. I’m sure of it.”  Mary agreed. She said her ex just got of prison and didn’t want a second child, so she was hiding to protect this child. I asked her where her first child was. She said with him. I asked her how on Earth could she leave her child with that man? She said she couldn’t get into a shelter that allowed children and besides, “He would never hurt her. He loves her.” These women didn’t seem drunk or on any drugs. They were lucid, and we were sitting fairly close and I didn’t smell any alcohol. Their eyes were clear, and they spoke well. 

Lennie then came by for his cigarette. He had been a Marine through special services. He spoke multiple languages and I knew it was true because we spoke French together and his French accent was good. He spoke Italian and German too. He had been an engineer but had been injured while in service. He showed me his scar. He wore it like a badge of honor. I asked if he was on disability. He said, “No. That ran out a long time ago.” So what made a man like this, a man who quoted John Smith, of colonial Jamestown, end up here?

“They prescribed Oxy and Vicodin after the second operation, I got hooked. I got into a rehab out here because my insurance was good. There were drugs and alcohol all over that rehab. I stayed sober if I could. No one was watching the hen house if you get my drift.” No. I didn’t get his drift. How could a rehabilitation center or sober house be riddled with drugs and alcohol? Weren’t these places regulated? Where were the professionals? Doctors? Therapist? “A doc would come by once in a while. We would get bused to AA meetings or NA. That’s about it.” He put out his cigarette and asked for another. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. One thing I did know was addicts lie. 

I got a gentle tap on my shoulder around eleven and was told it was time to be on the other side of the fence. Lennie insisted on walking me through the parking lot. I was determined to get a mat tomorrow. I said goodnight to the ladies as Lennie walked me to my car. “You aren’t going to sleep in your car, are you?” “I think I’ll drive somewhere else,” I responded. “Don’t blame you. But be careful. You can’t just park anywhere and sleep. The cops will get you.” I waved good night and drove back up to the Top of the World. 

I was haunted and didn’t sleep well that night. I still hadn’t gotten Tim’s answer, but I had done enough. I spent hours down there and got a good feel for the place. But why were there so many homeless and so little mats? Were people being bused in? I didn’t know so I had to go back. 

I woke up the next morning and I still felt uneasy. Wasn’t sure I could muster the courage to go back down there. It was overwhelming. I had been so arrogant thinking I could handle this situation let alone come up with a solution. I persuaded myself to go down and get some answers. Talk to the employees. The workers, and who were those well-dressed middle aged to elderly people sleeping on the mats? They could easily fit in town and no one would ever know they were homeless. What was going on? I was going to get answers today. 

I was determined to get a mat this time, so I showed up early. I had brought more water, protein bars and cigarettes. I had my bedding and had already decided that I was going to give up my mat if I got one and just sleep in the corner. Dinner was given. I ate my bars. The food they told me, “was really good.” Some of the boxes of food said “Zinc” on them sometimes. I told Mary, “that is good food. I’ve eaten at the restaurant lots of times.” She said, “it’s a restaurant? Huh. Nice people to give us this food.” I agreed. After dinner, the movie “Groundhog Day” was playing on the TV. People gathered around. I had gotten a mat. I was excited and had already decided to sit between Dawn and Mary for the night. 

As everyone watched the movie, I spoke to some of the older people who had no interest in watching TV. I asked to sit next to a nice looking man I would guess was in his early seventies. He had neatly combed white hair, eyeglasses and a pressed shirt. He wore khakis and ked sneakers. He reminded me of my dad. I asked him how he got here. “I never left here. I’ve always been a resident of Laguna Beach.” I didn’t understand. He explained, “I still have a business in the Village but the rent went up, so it was either my apartment or give up my business.” “Couldn’t you live in a cheaper town and drive in?” I asked. “When my wife got cancer, the bills wiped us out. But at least she’s ok now.” He pointed to a lovely lady watching the movie.” Don’t tell anyone. People know me in this town.” I gave him my word I would not. 

I moved down to a woman who was sitting in a wheelchair. She was drastically thin, an African American woman who looked like she was in her seventies too. She wore scrubs and worn slippers on her feet. I asked her how she got here. She said she was from Spanish Harlem in New York. She had a niece who lived in Southern California. When she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, she came to California where the weather was better. That didn’t make sense to me. “Why are you here and not at your niece’s house?” “Well. My cancer is now a stage 1. I don’t want to live with them and they don’t want me.” I asked why not, and she said, “Because of my schizophrenia.  “I act crazy sometimes.” What about medication I asked. “Can’t afford medication and the doctor who comes around here every once in while can’t write scripts.” What about MediCal? Special groups? Anything? “Where am I going to find a Doctor? I can’t keep anything down and I’m in this damn chair. I don’t have a phone and even if I did, who’s going to drive me back and forth?” She asked forcefully. It was at this time I got another tap I’m my shoulder. It was too early for lights out, so I didn’t know what was going on. It was one of two female employees. 

There were two women who worked until eleven each night. They called me into the office. I felt like I had been sent to the principal’s office. We sat down behind closed doors and I was asked if I was interviewing people. “Well, kind of,” I said. The other woman cut to the chase. “Are you Homeless?” After a pause, I fessed up. “No. But I am running for City Council and there is a rumor that the homeless from Newport were being dropped off here in Laguna Beach. I wanted to find out if that was true, but got sidetracked talking and listening to individuals and their life stories. “Is it true?” I asked. 

“Not as much as before,” the first woman said. “Maybe four times in the past year. But you don’t have the full story. There is a whole life that starts once everybody else in town goes to bed. All the police and the shelters are trying to do is get people off the streets. One homeless person at a time. Not more than that. It’s not like Laguna Beach homeless haven’t slept in Newport,” she said defensively. She continued, “There are no bad guys here. The Police are doing the best they can. I can also tell you there are anonymous vans that drop people off right before the gate and then take off. We have no idea who they are. The police aren’t the problem. I want to make that clear,” she said. “It’s clear,” I reiterated. “So, what’s the real problem you see?” I asked. 

They both sighed simultaneously. “We get paid minimum, so we aren’t doing this for the money.” That to me was clear. This was really hard work and the idea that these women were paid minimum wage or a few dollars above seemed ridiculous.  About 98 percent of the people there were white, roughly half middle aged or older. There seems to be mental health issues and addiction/self-medication, some PTSD and those who simply fell through the cracks. Then there were domestic violence victims. That surprised me. “Yes,” one of the ladies said. “The domestic violence residences fill up quickly, so women end up here.” “So, you have addiction, mental illness, domestic violence, PTSD and those who financially fell through the cracks all crammed together in a 45-bed area?” I asked. “Yup” was the response. 

“Do you really have people who have come straight from one of these fancy rehabs or sober houses?” I asked. “Oh yeah. Everyone knows those places just suck up your insurance and then kick you out.” “There is no supervision or counseling?” I asked. “Probably a doctor who shows up once in while like here, but they can’t write any prescriptions.” This was insanity I thought. “What if we had three boxes?” I asked. “Separating the severely mentally ill, addicts and those overwhelmed by financial hardship through medical bills or high rents?” “Yes!” They said in unison. “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind a raise either?” I asked. They laughed and said that would help too. I told them I thought the addicts should get medically supervised rehabilitation but if they relapsed, they should go to jail for 90 days. Second offense, 120 days behind bars. They both agreed only if the addict wasn’t really interested in getting sober. They did point out that there have been some success stories of addicts going to the Canyon Club (an AA meeting club nearby). These addicts would go to the Canyon Club during the day, sleep at the ASL at night, and would slowly straighten out their lives. Eventually they would move on after finding jobs and housing. Some even come back to volunteer.” “Our success stories,” one said. “So, there is hope?” I asked. “Hell yah!” The other answered. “If there weren’t hope, I wouldn’t be here.” “So, we need doctors to volunteer their time and write prescriptions.” I said. I told them I would investigate it. They were good people everywhere. We all agreed. 

“You can’t smush all these people together and not expect chaos,” one of ladies told me.” Made sense. “You know you can’t stay here, right?” The brunette asked me. “Yeah. I figured,” I replied. “But I wasn’t going to take a mat from anyone.” I gave it one last attempt. “I called the director and she said you still had to go. But thank you for checking out what we are doing here.” The blonde employee woman told me. “I wish I had more answers. This is just a band aid.” The other woman said, “Well, sometimes a band aid on an open wound is better than nothing,” said the other. I gave the rest of my cigarettes to Dawn and hugged her and Mary goodnight. Dawn said she was going to sell them. “Good idea,” I replied. Mary asked me if I would be back. I told her I would. 

I got in my car and quickly locked the doors. I was scared I would run over someone on the ground as I reversed. It was cold and my back window had fogged up. People started walking towards me. No one I recognized. I punched it into drive and took off. Couldn’t wait to leave. But now, I felt sick about feeling that way. Maybe that was progress after all. 

Allison Mathews

Laguna Beach