CITY HALL — If history means anything, then Santa Monica city officials might be forced to suspend enforcement of its anti camping ordinance.

That’s what officials in Los Angeles and Laguna Beach did as part of their settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union after it sued the cities for allegedly arresting homeless individuals for sleeping in public places even though there was a lack of available shelter beds.

The ACLU last month filed a lawsuit against Santa Monica City Hall on behalf of six chronically homeless individuals who claimed they were arrested and jailed for sleeping in public. The complaint alleges that City Hall violated their constitutional rights by arresting them for breaking a local law when there is no other alternative.

City officials declined to state whether they have met with the ACLU about working out a settlement, but stressed that they would prefer to resolve the issue sooner than later.

“This lawsuit in particular represents what many people believe to be a misguided use of resources and energy that could be more wisely spent in solving problems regionally,” Joe Lawrence, the assistant city attorney, said.

The ACLU’s waging of a legal battle came as a surprise to officials in a city known for providing various services for the homeless, whether it’s through funding nonprofit social service agencies or launching its initiative to take the 10 most vulnerable homeless individuals off the streets.

The suits were similarly surprising to officials in Santa Barbara and Laguna Beach when filed by the ACLU in December 2008 and March of this year, respectively.

“We were really kind of negatively surprised by it because we as a city have done a tremendous amount to assist the homeless and we are in the middle of a big city effort to come up with new programs to assist the homeless,” Stephen Wiley, the Santa Barbara city attorney, said.

The case has not yet been resolved in Santa Barbara where a court hearing is scheduled in September. City officials are in the process of instituting a dozen recommendations that came out of a subcommittee last year to address homelessness, including building hundreds of housing units over the next few years and developing outreach programs.

The city of Los Angeles was sued in 2003 over similar allegations, later agreeing to a settlement in which it suspended enforcement of an anti-camping law from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. until an additional 1,250 units of permanent supportive housing were constructed, at least 50 percent of which would be located on Skid Row and/or greater Downtown Los Angeles.

The settlement allowed enforcement of the ordinance at all times within 10 feet of any operational entrance, exit, driveway or loading dock.

The suit was similarly resolved in Laguna Beach earlier this year when city officials agreed to withhold enforcement while the issue of the lack of shelter beds and homelessness is studied. City officials also agreed to provide the ACLU advanced notification if they decide to reactivate enforcement or amend those regulations, Phil Kohn, the city attorney, said.

Kohn said that the lawsuit was a surprise since officials had voluntarily decided to cease enforcement about 10 months before the ACLU came into the picture. They even formed a task force in February 2008 to study what steps can be taken to address the issue. The results will be presented to the City Council in September.

There are approximately 40 to 50 homeless individuals in Laguna Beach, but Kohn believes the population might have doubled because of the publicity associated with the litigation.

Kohn said that the problem can’t be resolved in one fell swoop because the origin and dynamics of homelessness is complex and individualistic.

“It’s not just camping, that is simply one of the manifestations of the problem,” he said. “More often than not, there are familial issues, there are social issues, there are medical and mental issues and other type of things that almost screams out for a carefully tailored approach based on assessment of their particular needs.

“It’s not a cop out for not doing enough, but it underscores that it’s not a very easy problem to solve.”

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