About 90 minutes south of Los Angeles, nestled amid the San Joaquin Hills, glistens an idyllic seaside community filled with artist studios and fancy restaurants with rustic names like The Driftwood Kitchen. You could easily miss Laguna Beach driving through the area’s gray-green canyons; then you come around a bend and there it is, shimmering like an oasis before the Pacific’s cobalt blue.
Each morning by the ocean a group of men and women meet for coffee and rolls. Linda, in a sky-blue hoodie and fabulous sunglasses, laughs as she recalls the Ferraris driven by her Pepperdine law school classmates. Nearby, roguish salt-and-pepper Walter explains his plans for a shelter for disabled women, while Michael, sporty in a duffer cap, discusses his recent hike in the Rockies.
Walter is also sending letters to the president. Linda is on disability, and someone nearby seems to be shouting at nobody. In fact, this isn’t a Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce meeting but a gathering of some of the town’s homeless.
Near the coffee canisters that Starbucks provides, Jim Keegan chats with whoever is closest. Lean and brown, in a black T-shirt, shorts and a wide brimmed hat, he doesn’t stand out. He’s been helping convene morning coffee here five days a week since he and his wife, Christine, arrived “stalking grandchildren” some eight years ago. But while the java’s flowing, he’s just another part of the klatch.
Wikipedia has a whole page dedicated to Laguna Beach’s famous residents, which include Judy Garland, Bette Midler and Douglas Fairbanks. Keegan himself was a highly successful lawyer. He and Christine live in a breathtaking house overlooking the ocean, filled with stunning works of art.
But the homeless of Laguna preoccupy him. “If you don’t go into this crazy, after a year you are,” he explains, describing the effects of being constantly shunned, harassed, ground down. “They have nobody. Everybody pisses on their shoes.”
Sentimentality is not a Keegan trait. He talks bluntly about “drunks” and “crazies” and the cold indifference of passers-by. “If a guy panhandles and you don’t have anything, you could at least respond to him like he’s not a piece of [excrement].”
At the same time, he lets Linda store her mail in his car trunk; others get rides to court appointments, social workers, the V.A. Everyone has access to his phone.
He’s had a few people live with him as they transition into homes, and he has offered to pay for one of them to go to graduate school. He and Christine have also endowed a social worker and a lawyer to help people get the services they need.
And he fights on their behalf. In 2008 Keegan helped get the A.C.L.U. to challenge the police practice of ticketing homeless people for sleeping in public, knowing they couldn’t pay and there wasn’t any shelter, then arresting them for nonpayment on Thursdays, after the judge was done for the week. The city settled quickly and opened a shelter that provides floor space and showers for 45 people.
Today the police are back to those tactics and others, like forcing people back and forth between different sites. Again, Keegan has turned to the A.C.L.U., hoping the result will be real housing with social services staff. “It’s been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be the solution.”
It’s people’s lack of interest that stuns Keegan. At a city council meeting he showed police records detailing their harsh actions. “And no one was offended,” he recalls with shock. “By the time I was walking out of the council chambers I was literally shaking.”
He wonders at the online bickering in the comment sections of Catholic periodicals like America or Commonweal; “meanwhile, real people are right there.”
“There’s this deacon I know, he’s always saying the Catholic Church is not a social service agency. I find that offensive. Before there was doctrine, there was your neighbor. If you can’t love a person who’s freaking out, smelling bad, wandering around crazy, who you can see is in need....” He shakes his head, as if it’s obvious.
Except for most people that’s exactly when it is hardest. Does Keegan never struggle with all this? What keeps him coming back? He never has much of an answer: “It just always struck me as so unfair.”
Then he shrugs and moves on to another story, as if to say, “Kid, when you get right down to it, what more do you need?”