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When it comes to homeless, Whittier is punished for doing the right thing

Most rational people facing the prospect of homelessness, perhaps due to the loss of a job, the death of a spouse, unforeseen hospitalization, or any other myriad of personal emergencies, would probably accept help if it meant a safe place to sleep at night.

And I’m willing to bet most Whittier residents — generous as they are — would be happy to lend that hand.

It becomes difficult to be sympathetic, however, when said homeless are meth addicts and alcoholics, defecating in our parks and yards, begging for spare change in front of restaurants, rifling through our unlocked vehicles, stealing our personal property, and showing zero interest in a path toward soberness.

That’s part of the reason the homeless crisis is so complicated. We lump “the homeless” into a singular category when everyone’s story is uniquely different. There are many different factors to consider: our state’s housing shortage, the opioids epidemic, stagnant wages, rising rents, and mental health services, to name a few.

Nobody wants to see homeless encampments at Parnell Park; besides the obvious hygienic and safety issues, the sight is a reminder of the failures of our society. For so long homelessness was a blight mostly restricted to Skid Row. It wasn’t a Whittier problem. But there’s no ignoring it anymore.

To Whittier’s credit, the city is taking a comprehensive approach to the crisis, even as it struggles to find solutions. Whereas most neighboring cities have taken to simply pushing the homeless outside its boundaries — either through incentives, intimidation, or outright dumping — Whittier has chosen to conform to the ruling of Boise vs. Martin, the landmark federal decision that says people have the right to sleep in public areas if no shelter beds are available.

To be clear, Whittier lacks the legal authority to kick the homeless out of parks, even after the park closes for the night. Or at least that his how Whittier has interpreted the court’s decision.
Boise is challenging the ruling to the Supreme Court. Whittier has filed a motion in support of Boise.

“If the 9th Circuit’s ruling is allowed to stand, then cities will not have the tools they need to prevent a humanitarian crisis on their own streets,” Boise Mayor David Bieter said in a news release. “We hope the Supreme Court takes this case to restore the power of local communities to regulate the use of their streets, parks and other public areas.”

At least locally, Whittier appears to stand alone in respecting the court’s decision. In Downey, homeless encampments can be found in the riverbeds (out of sight), but police officers are quick to scoot them out of parks and off bus benches. Downey isn’t alone in its aggressiveness against vagrancy.

“A lot of those other cities, I’ve talked to probably 12-15 cities in Los Angeles County, including the Sheriff’s Department, and they’ve chosen to enforce the park curfew and camping,” Whittier Police Chief Jeff Piper said at a special City Council meeting Monday where the topic was homelessness. “That’s why you don’t see it there. We’re just not doing it here. Right or wrong, I’m not saying that we should, what I’m saying is they’ve chosen to disregard the Boise case.”

Other cities’ decision to ignore the Boise court ruling has led to obvious frustration here.

“What I heard the chief say is, ‘Other cities don’t follow the law, in Whittier we do, we try to do things upright, honest, and in conformance of the law and take care of our own problem, and we get punished for it,’” said Councilman Henry Bouchot.

Area homeless set up their tents among the picnic benches at Parnell Park in Whittier on Tuesday October 29, 2019. (Photo by Keith Durflinger)

Ignoring the Boise ruling like neighboring cities would set up Whittier for a potential lawsuit, said Whittier city attorney Dick Jones.

“Whittier has been at the forefront of homelessness for many years,” Jones said, “and would clearly be one of the first cities that would be sued if there was an opportunity to say we weren’t properly enforcing the law consistent with the Boise case.”

Boise court ruling aside, a common complaint has been people using alleys and parks as their own personal toilets, an obvious criminal act, homeless or otherwise. But Whittier police officers are stretched thin already and can’t immediately respond to all complaints, adding to residents’ frustrations.

“The quality of life issues that we’re seeing — the urinating, defecating, the drug usage that we see in the parks — that is a big deal to us, but we prioritize our calls,” said Piper. “And we’re responding to between 130-140 calls per day and every time we get a call because somebody’s urinating, we’re not out there for 2-3 hours sometimes. [Callers] do get frustrated with us and I can understand that.”

In the instances police officers do respond in time, they have the option of issuing a citation. But the effectiveness of citations is questionable, especially in the aftermath of Prop. 47, the 2014 referendum that recategorized many felony offenses as misdemeanors.

According to Piper, one local man was cited 20 different times by Whittier police officers. All were dismissed by a judge.

“Our criminal justice system is flawed,” Piper said.

Whittier council members have spent much time in recent months developing a plan to combat homelessness, and topping their list of priorities is creating more shelter beds. Where a shelter would be located, and how it would be staffed and funded, still remains unclear.

Any location is guaranteed to face opposition from residents who’d prefer the shelter be located in Norwalk, Pico Rivera, or anywhere else but in their backyard. A Whittier shelter, however, would take people off the streets and give police the tools they need to get homeless out of parks.

A preliminary plan to possibly open a shelter at 5913 Esperanza Ave., at the city’s very west end, is already meeting resistance from Pico Rivera.

“Due to its close proximity to our City, and its immediate adjacency to a residential community and park in an unincorporated community, we would like to emphasize our concern for impacts to specific land use, environmental considerations, and public services, as well as social and community impacts in the immediate, mid, and long term,” Pico Rivera Mayor Brent Tercero wrote to the Whittier City Council.

NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) proponents are expected from residents but it doesn’t bode well that it’s coming from other cities as well.

“I want to say thank you to those of you who labored through this with us, whether in the audience or on television,” said Mayor Joe Vinatieri at the end of Monday’s 4-hour meeting. “We made some good progress tonight, we gave ourselves some target deadlines, and a comprehensive attack on what we need to do here in Whittier.”

In the meantime, a report released Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Department of Health revealed that the number of homeless who have died on the streets nearly doubled from 2013 to 2018.
The county’s analysis of death certificates and coroner’s records found that 1,047 people identified as homeless died in 2018, up from 536 in 2013.

“This report is tragic, and reflects a true state of emergency on the streets of our community,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. “It is unconscionable and inhumane for society to continue to turn a blind eye to this plight.”

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