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Homeless discussion draws more than 60 to Saturday meeting

By BARBARA DIAMOND

A crowd of more than 60 showed up at Wells Fargo Bank Saturday to hear a presentation on Laguna’s homeless by Friendship Shelter Executive Director Dawn Price.

The room was packed with passionately-held diverse opinions on how the city should treat the situation, which has led in the past to angry confrontations. Not on Saturday. City Councilman Peter Blake set the tone, requesting civil discourse rather than rancorous discord between those of a different view. 

“I am representing myself, not the city,” said Blake. “Dawn Price is as articulate as it gets. She has cutting edge ideas. I am still medieval. Sometimes I lose my temper, but I would love it if we were all cordial – this is Mister Cordial speaking.”

Price made her case with a PowerPoint presentation, followed by, sometimes interrupted by but never rudely put, questions from the folks in chairs around a large table, standing against the walls and seated on the floor. 

“Our goal is no homeless in parks or on the beaches,” said Price, a position favored by many in the room. 

Friendship Shelter’s vision is ending chronic homelessness in South Orange County, one person at a time; that no one is homeless in our community for more than 30 days and that they have a bed for every one of those days. 

Reuniting families is another goal, not always possible if the family has given up on a member. However, social worker Carol Eastman reported on recently reuniting two families that were willing to try again.   

“If their family doesn’t support them, why should we?” questioned one participant at the meeting.

Attorney Jennifer Zeiter suggested the homeless could give back to the community that is supporting them by volunteering. 

Price firmly believes that the best way to get the chronically homeless off the streets is to get them into permanent supportive housing. She claims it is cheaper, cutting in half the $100,000 cost per chronically homeless person in shelters or on the streets per year. That reduction can save the city $4.3 million a year, she said.

Blake was among those who question Price’s numbers.

Currently, Friendship Shelter offers 30 beds in their building on South Coast Highway, 45 mats at the Alternative Sleeping Location in Laguna Canyon, a combined 87 beds in permanent supportive housing including at Henderson House – named for Friendship Shelter founder Rev. Colin Henderson – in San Clemente, Silver Lantern in Dana Point and scattered single units. 

Friendship Shelter will add another 17 beds in a San Clemente building formerly rented by the month as affordable housing, as the tenants’ leases expire.

“I can’t tell you how angry that makes me,” said Blake.

His reaction was echoed by some participants in the meeting, who objected to the idea of moving out people who are paying rent and “moving in drug addicts.”

One man flat out did not believe Price’s statement that a donor, whose named Price declined to reveal, came up with the $3.5 million to buy the building.

“Somebody is making money out of this,” he said.

Besides the cost of the chronically homeless to the public, concern was expressed about safety issues: the merely annoying or downright scary encounters with the homeless on the streets, at Main Beach or in Heisler Park.

One man said his daughter and her two daughters are afraid to go the beach because of the homeless. Several in the audience nodded their heads in agreement. 

Police have upped their presence at Main Beach at the request of Blake and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dicterow and reports of misconduct have declined. 

Friendship Shelter has also created a day-time program at the ASL, at which people can shower, wash clothes and get some counseling – not spend their days aimlessly wandering or sunning themselves on park benches.    

“If they aren’t breaking any laws, they have a much right to sit on a bench in a park as I do,” said Laguna Beach resident Anne Frank. 

“And I will gladly pay the taxes.” 

Blake said there has been talk of formally organizing a group, possibly to be called Laguna Residents Alliance. Saturday’s meeting was organized by Jeanette Huber. She can be contacted on Nextdoor.