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Whittier gives 10-day warning to Parnell Park encampment before clean-up begins

WHITTIER – The Whittier City Council avoided a complete shutdown of Parnell Park at their emergency meeting on Monday, opting instead to give encampment residents just over a week to vacate the park before staff begins clean-up.

The city will now give 10-days notice that a curfew will be enforced at Parnell, during which HOST and any other service providers can come in and assist those residing in the encampment who desire assistance.

When those 10 days expire, the curfew will go into effect and the park will temporarily close so that city crews can begin sanitizing the encampment area. Staff will also analyze the rest of the park to determine what other locations – if any – will need similar treatment.

How long the closure will last will depend on how long city workers need to sanitize the area. Once completed, the park will reopen with the curfew maintained.

It was not an easy road to the decision Monday, as council members butted heads on more than one occasion while attempting to find a reasonable solution. Even the final vote was not unanimous, only earning a 4-0 vote. Councilwoman Cathy Warner abstained, voicing that she could neither vote yay or nay due to her feeling that the motion “did not go far enough.”

Warner called for discussion of the park’s closure after 22-year-old Corinna Megan Ortega was found dead of a suspected overdose inside of a tent within the encampment on New Year’s Day. However, matters were made more urgent after a confrontation early Sunday morning between an older Hispanic male and one of the encampment’s residents that ended in alleged gunfire.

No one was hurt by gunfire and police did not find bullet casings at the scene.

Councilman Josue Alvarado said that he “didn’t agree with this emergency meeting.”

“Has this issue been there for the last year and a half? Yes,” said Alvarado. “I think we should have handled this back in October; we could have handled this back many months ago.”

“But it’s always better to look forward than to look backward…doing something, even late, is better than doing nothing.”

Mayor Pro Tem Fernando Dutra said that it was “absolutely clear that there is more work to be done.”

“This is a short-term way of fixing it,” said Dutra. “Long term is we need to establish mental health and detox assistance.”

The homeless crisis has been a sticking point for Whittier and its residents for more than a year, with the city reluctant to take action on the homeless encampment at Parnell Park for fear of drawing a costly lawsuit.

Residents filled the council chambers to capacity and spilled out to the main lobby on the first floor. Before a decision could be made, council members fielded comments from residents for nearly two hours.

Amongst that crowd was an extremely emotional Betty Thorpe, Oretga’s mother.

“You will never know the pain that I am feeling right now that my daughter’s life was taken,” said Thorpe. “I don’t want anyone else to get hurt; Megan, my baby girl, wouldn’t have wanted any of this to happen to anyone…There are still things going on at the park – horrible things going on at the park – that I have to listen to, and I can’t grieve in peace, because people are trying to hurt others and it’s not right. It’s so unfair.”

Thorpe pleaded for the council and residents to show sympathy for those in the encampment.

“They’re not all bad people,” said Thorpe. “They have this area where they’re kind of stuck at now because they don’t have anywhere else to go. I understand your concerns as residents, but it doesn’t make sense that the residents in the area are going around yelling at them and driving their vehicles on the grass to hurt them. They’re scared now; they’re victims now.

“Try and get to know them and understand where they’re coming from and why. Maybe that will give you more compassion in your heart.”

Although there were some who mirrored Thorpe’s sentiments, a vast majority of the crowd supported at least some sort of change in procedure, citing multiple instances of being approached or harassed by the homeless, witnessing public defecation, and finding drug paraphernalia.

“You guys want to close the park, but I feel like the park is already closed,” said one resident. “In my opinion, the park is already closed to our kids, and you’re opening it up to drug addicts and you’re not going in there to clean them out. I call on a daily basis… When are the parks going to open up for our kids, and not for the trash that’s there?”

“I’m sorry about the family that lost their daughter that lost her life, but something needs to change and it’s not happening. It’s getting worse, and I want the park back for our kids, not for them.”

A final vote is expected at the council’s meeting next Tuesday.

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