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In Whittier, a tale of two cities

It was Saturday, 8:30 in the morning.

 

At Central Park, a group of about two dozen residents lit candles, formed a half-circle, and prayed for a homeless woman who had died in the park two nights prior.

 

People from the neighborhood knew her as Lana, and it’s believed she died of natural causes — if you can call dying alone underneath a tree “natural.”

 

Homeless advocates attend a candlelight vigil at Central Park in Whittier on Saturday November 23, 2019 for “Lana,” a homeless woman who died Thursday night. (Photo by Keith Durflinger)

 

Did she have family? Was she cold? Lonely?

 

Will she get a proper burial? Why was she homeless? Would she have accepted help?

 

There are many unanswered questions and few answers. But we know she was reduced to sleeping outdoors in a park overnight, when the temperature had dipped into the 50s.

 

Across town at Parnell Park, a different scene was playing out.

 

Here, residents — also about two dozen — had reached their limit with the public drunkenness, open drug use, and general lawlessness that has robbed public use of Parnell. A tent city has overtaken the park’s picnic shelters, which has been cordoned off with yellow police tape. It’s unclear if the tape is intended to protect the public or the homeless.

 

No reasonable parent would bring their child to Parnell Park, and families looking for a place to have a birthday party or baby shower are forced to look elsewhere.

 

In the old days (i.e., a year ago), a house located next to a park would be considered prime real estate. But not at Parnell, where residents routinely document vagrants creeping into their neighborhoods and using their front lawns as open-air toilets.

 

It didn’t help that Councilman Henry Bouchot posted on Facebook a photograph of himself sitting and smiling alongside some of those tent city occupants, the same people residents blame for desecrating their neighborhoods. On Saturday, some residents called the photo antagonizing, further wedging the divide between Whittier constituents and their elected City Council members.

 

An unattributed flyer circulated on social media urged residents to bring whistles to Parnell Park to annoy the homeless residents currently residing there. In return, police closed the park’s south parking lot, which abuts the encampment. About a dozen Whittier police officers and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies watched the protest from afar. To his credit, City Manager Jeff Collier (himself a Whittier resident) attended and tried to engage in conversation with the protestors, but that conversation didn’t appear to go very far.

 

Protestors shifted their attention from the encampment to the corner of Lambert and Scott, brandishing handmade signs that promised to “storm City Hall” on Dec. 10, the date of the City Council’s next regular meeting. Passing cars honked in support.

Whittier residents protested against a homeless encampment at Parnell Park on Saturday. Photo by Eric Pierce

 

Last month, the Whittier City Council declared a homeless shelter crisis and approved a new plan it hopes will alleviate homelessness. Part of the plan calls for joining neighboring cities in exploring the possibility of a regional homeless shelter. Whittier may also join an Orange County lawsuit that could allow it to enforce its park curfews.

 

There’s no magic bullet that will miraculously solve this crisis. We’re here because of a statewide housing shortage and voter-approved legislation (AB 109 and Prop. 47) that fails to hold accountable people who break the law.

 

That’s really all that Whittier residents are asking for: that our city’s laws be enforced. But court actions and state legislation have made that increasingly difficult.

 

The contrasts of emotions at Central Park and Parnell Park on Saturday were remarkable. That they occurred on the same day, at the same time, perfectly encapsulated the state of Whittier today, where empathy and frustration clash daily.

 

 

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