ACLU: Laguna Beach homeless policy violates the ADA

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Walkway, along sandy beach, houses, palm trees and clear blue sky

Laguna Beach, California

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a federal lawsuit against a wealthy Orange County beach town August 20, accusing it of violating federal discrimination laws in its treatment of homeless people 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,” said Kristopher Wood, an attorney with Paul Hastings LLP, which is assisting the ACLU with the litigation, in a news release. “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 ACLU first sued the city in December 2008, accusing it of conducting “sweeps” of its “chronically homeless population,” despite the lack of any emergency shelter within its borders, as described by the Los Angeles Times. The ACLU contends that the city’s chronically homeless population, which consists of an an estimated 40 to 100 of the city’s 23,000 residents, consists almost entirely of people with mental and physical disabilities.

The parties reached a settlement three months later, requiring the city to repeal the ordinance in question and construct an emergency shelter.

However, after the terms of the settlement expired, the city enacted a near-identical ordinance that similarly prohibits homeless people from “sleeping” and “camping” in public places. Meanwhile, the new shelter, known as “Alternate Sleeping Location,” lacks space or is otherwise unsuitable for much of this population.

“For such individuals, it can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to cope with the crowded, noisy, and chaotic environment of a homeless shelter, such as at ASL,” the lawsuit states. “Some can only stay in this shelter environment for a short period before they experience deterioration in their mental condition that forces them to leave. Others are kicked out because their disabilities prevent them from being able to conform to the behavioral requirements of the shelter.

“When they cannot access the shelter, they are without any safe, legal place to sleep within the city and are at risk of criminal citation for merely sleeping or lying down with their belongings.”

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, raises claims under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well 8th and 14th amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.