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Opinion: Who’s speaking for Whittier’s disenfranchised?

The homelessness crisis has hit our community hard. It is no secret that Whittier has paid the price when it comes to the impact and the increase the homeless population has had in our communities since 2018: We have witnessed a drastic rise in crime and safety has become a concern in our city. Many parks are no longer the safe, fun places that they once were for many to enjoy. 

Due to this crisis, residents near Parnell Park became concerned that the park was overrun with homeless encampments. The City of Whittier responded to the concerns by temporarily closing the park and removing the encampments. Beyond that temporary fix, it’s worth asking whether some of our leaders are seeking solutions to the homeless crisis that don’t simply shift the problems associated with homelessness to another segment of our community.

One proposed solution is the development of a homeless shelter near a residential area near unincorporated Los Angeles County. This location (owned by the City of Whittier) is adjacent to the 605 Freeway and is a historically disadvantaged community. This community consists of long-time residents who Whittier city leaders and county officials have neglected for far too long. Without addressing their concerns, the Whittier city council is exploring the placement of a homeless shelter smack dab in the middle of this residential area surrounding Esperanza Avenue. 

Many residents such as Robert Herrera and Rosa Fernandez have spoken up, but no elected leader has felt the need to protect the targeted community. But, why? Why is the Whittier city council targeting this disenfranchised working-class community? 

I have met with these residents and have discussed their concerns, and they ask, why aren’t additional locations for a homeless shelter being explored near the homes of Whittier city councilmembers?  Is YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) only good when in reality it is someone else’s backyard?

Don’t get me wrong, we all feel compassion for the homeless population, and we do need to find a place that is appropriate to house them. However, kicking them out of Whittier proper and into the backyards of hardworking families is not the solution. Targeting this neighborhood to shoulder the responsibility simply because they are in an unincorporated area, out of the way and thus can’t vote in city elections and hold the council’s feet to the fire is simply unacceptable. 

The residents are helpless. They have no say.

We don’t want all our parks to end up like Parnell, nor do we want to see any further encampments around the city. But who will shoulder the responsibility for the needed solution? Will any local leader take a stand on behalf of the Esperanza residents?

One of our city councilmembers, Josue Alvarado, had stepped up by stating that he was “flabbergasted at the idea that we’re trying to export our problem to your backyard.” He also said he is “not a fan of densifying homelessness in a region that’s already impoverished.” 

Even neighboring city officials from Pico Rivera joined in opposing the shelter’s suggested location, stating their concerns over targeting “a community faced with environmental and social equity challenges over the years.”

This community has no way to fight back and is therefore left with the repercussions of what no one else wants in their own backyards. The only hope lies in the willingness of the community to give a voice to these otherwise voiceless families.  

Octavio C. Martinez is a former pastor and commissioner in Whittier. 

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