Where Did All of the Homeless Go?: Irvine’s Mysterious Transient Policy

While the city of Laguna Beach recently won a lawsuit against the American Civil Liberties Union to move the homeless who slept on the beach to a new parking lot facility, the city of Irvine has a very different policy.

Laguna was once one of the few cities in the United States to allow people to sleep on the beach, but recently city homeless policies have changed.

When the beach became all too frequently used for camping, lodging and storage, an ordinance was put in place on Nov. 2 to move people from the beach to a parking lot on Laguna Canyon Road about a mile from where most homeless used to sleep.

According to Laguna Beach Assistant City Manager, John Pietig, the parking lot is not simply a blank plot of land, but a 2800 square-foot modulus facility, paid for by the city of Laguna Beach for $235,000, that was delivered on four connected trailers. It provides food, clothes, shower and counseling services to those in need. The new relief service is contracted with a group of three service providers: Mercy House, Friendship Shelter and the Laguna Relief and Resource Coalition.

The Friendship Shelter, a 32-bed shelter in the city, works to provide food to those in need in Laguna. According to the Executive Director of the Friendship Shelter, Dawn Price, residents of Laguna Beach’s new relief shelter receive three meals per day.

However, while the city of Laguna Beach and the shelters and programs associated with the “alternative sleeping location” are confident and pleased with the results of the new facility, the issue of violence still remains a concern.

Two married Laguna Beach homeless people, Kay and Martin, who do not wish to disclose their last names, were very hesitant about the idea of moving to a parking lot before the ordinance was passed, primarily because they did not want to be in close proximity with other homeless people.

“I can’t stand drunks,” Martin said, “I can’t stand dope heads. At least 80 percent of the homeless out here are into drugs or are drunks and crack-addicts.”

Kay mentioned a particular time when a few drunken homeless men began fighting near some children, driving a frustrated Martin to break up the fight.

“Me and him don’t do no drugs,” Kay said, “We don’t drink. These other homeless give us bad names. There’s a reason why some people sleep in the park and others sleep on the beach. Some of us don’t get along. If you put us all in a little parking lot it’s going to make the violence so much worse.”

Price, however, insists that the staff is carefully monitoring the violence issue and that the only calls to the police made thus far have been to assist with mental health issues and not violence.

In contrast to the problem in Laguna, Irvine, another fairly affluent city, rarely sees homeless on the streets. There are no shelters in Irvine and no real place for the homeless to go. Rumors still circulate that the Irvine police department pick up homeless people against their will and drop them off in Santa Ana.

“No, the Irvine Police Department does not drop off transients in our city,” said Commander Tammy Franks of the Santa Ana Police Department in response to the allegations, “I am not aware of that ever happening. Not that I am aware of or anyone I know is aware of.”

The Irvine Police Department and the city counsel of Irvine were both contacted to verify or negate these claims but did not respond.

According to Dwight Smith, the owner of the Catholic Worker shelter, Isaiah House in Santa Ana, the rumors, while greatly exaggerated, are not entirely false.

Santa Ana Police were correct in saying that transients are not dropped off on the streets of Santa Ana. Irvine Police do not take homeless to the streets of Santa Ana but directly to shelters, a commodity that Irvine does not have.

Smith says most of the time, the homeless are taken to the Salvation Army, but the Salvation Army does not always have a spot for them. Only six to seven beds are available for newcomers every day and they must arrive by around 2:30 p.m. in order to reserve a bed. The Salvation Army does not use phones to reserve beds either; those needing a place to stay for the night need to ask in person.

There are three kinds of government-funded shelters: emergency, transitional and long-term. Emergency shelters give each person two hot meals and a cot, a transitional shelter has a few more services such as counseling and/or longer stays and long-term shelters give people two years of shelter under the condition that they save 80 percent of their check over the course of that 2-year period.

When police drop people off at the shelter in Santa Ana, they are taking them to an emergency shelter because other types of shelters require a background check, taking longer than a day for admittance.

Smith demands a change from the social workers who run the shelters or work for the city of Santa Ana and claim that they are functioning properly. While they claim to have enough space, there remains the problem of sickness.

If a person or family becomes sick with the H1N1 virus, for example, they may be admitted to a hospital but then they will be taken to a shelter within a few days where they will have a difficult time resting and recovering.

“Our country is way worse than a third world country. There are no Mexican homeless people. I would be glad if we could work up to being a third world country morally. If there is no sacrifice in the world then there is no morality. There are people just like me who just don’t have jobs. Orange County has just discarded these people and it is not right,” Smith said.