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From Canyon to Cove: Handling the homeless issue in a caring way

March 17, 2011|By Cindy Frazier

The Alternative Sleeping Location wasn't even on the radar in January 2008 when Laguna Beach Police Officer Jason Farris was tasked with the job of handling the city's hardcore homeless population.

Farris was the first police officer to be given an exclusive "homeless beat," and he had the luxury, and responsibility, of figuring out for himself how to go about the job. Was the job rousting street sleepers with a baton and moving them out of town, or helping them to get shelter and better lives?

Farris decided to pursue the latter approach, and became a kind of "social worker with a gun on his hip." He had some notable successes, and some heartbreaking losses.

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When I interviewed Farris in March 2008 after he had been on the job a few months, he had already shown a knack for deftly directing those most in need to get help, while gently convincing others to move along and not add to the homeless population that was beginning to swell in downtown Laguna.

Farris was credited with getting the notorious "Cowboy" Charles Reginald Conwell into a detox program. Conwell had been drunk on the streets of Laguna Beach for some 30 years. After a number of months in a program, he unfortunately returned to the streets, where he was killed in a traffic collision while trying to cross Laguna Canyon Road in January 2010.

In another notable case, Farris learned of a man who had been living in a cave in Laguna Canyon for 20 years, coming out once a month to buy supplies and then going back to his hideout. Since the man had no watch, Farris gave him his own timepiece so the man could meet him for an appointment — a sign of the ability of this officer to do what it takes in a caring and generous way.

Farris made it his business to work closely with the Relief and Resource Center's homeless advocates before the city set up the Alternative Sleeping Location. Before the city began to take steps to manage the homeless problem, the volunteer-run center was the only avenue of on-demand help for street-dwellers.

The Friendship Shelter serves the homeless but they must first be accepted into its program and agree to remain drug- and alcohol-free, which many are not ready for.

Tragically, a homeless veteran died in August 2007 after cutting himself on a window to enter the Resource Center facility on a weekend when it wasn't staffed. Clearly, more resources were needed to help this vulnerable, desperate and growing population.

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