SANTA ANA, Calif. – A team of legal organizations applauded the city of Laguna Beach today for agreeing to settle a lawsuit over its treatment of disabled homeless people. The settlement agreement marks a significant shift away from the criminalization of homeless people and toward recognition of their membership in the community.
Under the agreement, the city’s police officers will not cite, arrest or harass people under state law simply for sleeping in public places, as long as there are no reasonable public health or safety concerns. The agreement also establishes a process for sealing, expunging or destroying citations that were written, and convictions that were obtained, under the city’s “anti-sleeping” ordinance. The city had already repealed key portions of the ordinance after being sued in December by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the law firm of Irell & Manella LLP, and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine law school.
“Laguna Beach’s action on this issue is a model for other cities in how to seek legal, compassionate and economically sound ways of eliminating homelessness, not the homeless,” said ACLU/SC Executive Director Ramona Ripston. “We applaud the mayor and the City Council for setting up a committee to further study and address the root causes of homelessness, and we’re hopeful that out of that process will come housing and services that will end homelessness once and for all in Laguna Beach.”
Andra Barmash Greene, the managing partner of Irell & Manella LLP’s Newport Beach office and co-counsel in the case, pointed out that the process for sealing, expunging or destroying citations and convictions was a key part of the settlement agreement, which will remain in effect for three years. "Citations and fines can exacerbate homelessness.They affect an individual’s ability to renew a driver’s license and receive state benefits, and often lead to arrest warrants and incarceration," Greene said. "We’re particularly pleased that the plaintiffs in this case will be able to resolve improper infractions on their records and avoid this destructive cycle, which unfortunately works to perpetuate homelessness in Laguna Beach and other cities.”
The lawsuit was filed after discussions between city officials and attorneys representing the homeless failed to yield necessary revisions to Laguna Beach’s policy toward homeless persons. In early 2008, the Laguna Beach City Council adopted recommendations from the city’s own homeless task force -- whose members included the current and former city mayors – supporting better mental-health care and transitional housing services for homeless people. Unfortunately, the City Council did not act on these recommendations, and instead continued harassing, citing and arresting homeless people in Laguna Beach
The city task force’s report concluded that there are an estimated 45 to 55 homeless people living in Laguna Beach. More recent estimates put the figure closer to 70. Nearly all the homeless people in Laguna Beach meet the definition of “chronically homeless” – people who have been homeless repeatedly or for an extended period of time, and have mental or physical disabilities, the task force noted.
“This settlement agreement builds on the city’s repeal of its anti-sleeping ordinance, and is one more important step toward decriminalizing homelessness in Laguna Beach,” said Hector Villagra, director of the Orange County office of the ACLU/SC. “It sets the stage for the city to adopt long-term strategies to end homelessness, rather than quick fixes to keep the homeless out of sight. We hope other cities will take note of this sensible approach.”