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City Council green-lights pilot shelter bed program

WHITTIER — The Whittier City Council gave the green light on a six-month pilot reserve crisis shelter bed program at their meeting Tuesday night, providing some relief, albeit not a complete fix to the homeless crisis.

The program establishes up to 11 crisis shelter beds at Whittier First Day, dependent on what is available within the 45 beds allowed within the shelter’s conditional use permit. The program is designed to enable specific City personnel to transport individuals willing to accept a shelter bed and able to meet relatively low barrier eligibility criteria to Whittier First Day.

Initially, staff called for the establishment of one to two beds, in order to “see if that is a program that is workable both for [First Day] in their facility with their staff and their adjustment in the way they would have normally provided services, and see if it is of help in our community,” according to Assistant City Manager Shannon DeLong.

Two beds also put the city just under the $20,000 allocated from the low and moderate income housing fund.

Councilman Josue Alvarado, however, described the number as “grotesquely too low.”

“Parnell Park and all these other parks cannot be cleaned up unless we have a substantial number of beds,” said Alvarado. “For me that number is just ridiculously too low knowing the crisis that we have in the city.”

According to a representative from First Day, the shelter has 11 beds that they are currently fundraising and paying for out of pocket, sometimes at a loss. Cost for those beds is roughly $50 per bed, per night.

During discussion, Council seemed to unanimously share concerns on the sober state of the homeless who might fill those beds should the city pick up that tab. However, First Day already has a zero tolerance policy concerning drugs and alcohol in place.

There has been continued frustration among many of Whittier’s constituents regarding how the city has handled – or not handled – the growing homeless epidemic, especially at Parnell Park.
At the core of the matter is the Boise vs. Martin case, which says the city cannot remove homeless individuals from its parks – regardless of closing time or curfew – unless there is a shelter bed available.

Boise is currently challenging the ruling to the Supreme Court, which Whittier has filed a motion in support of.

In the meantime, Whittier remains the seemingly odd-man-out locally in terms of honoring the federal ruling, maintaining that by respecting the Boise decision, the city is kept out of any potential lawsuits. Most other surrounding cities have taken aggressive or incentivizing measures to push their homeless out of their own boundaries.

Still, the city’s explanation for the lack of aggressive action has come as little comfort to residents, some of whom showed up at City Council to voice their concerns and displeasure.

Many who spoke recalled examples of being approached by vagrants, finding trash, bottles, and syringes, and witnessing these individuals defecating in public.

Ultimately, Council decided to move forward with a motion by Councilwoman Cathy Warner and a second by Alvarado, resulting in a 4-0 with Councilman Henry Bouchot absent.

It is now up to First Day and city staff to coordinate the conditions surrounding who will utilize the beds, and for how long. Mayor Joe Vinatieri also added a stipulation that a report be brought back to Council in 60 days.

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