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Whittier sees progress in collaborative battle against homelessness

WHITTIER — Whittier’s efforts in supporting homelessness recovery and quality of life for all are poised for additional tremendous progress. After much effort by many individuals and organizations in a number of forms, another vital component of Whittier’s Homelessness Plan adopted July 24, 2018, specifically Goal 3a is within reach. What this means for all of us in our community is important to appreciate.


Homelessness: A Wicked Problem

People experience homelessness for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the experience comes from outside the person, such as a sudden job loss, deaths in the family, a debilitating mental or physical condition which keeps a person from being able to hold a job. Sometimes the experience comes from within the person, such as unhealthy life choices.


Either way, there is an important need for action.


“Wicked Problem” is a term used in different fields of study including mine. A “Wicked Problem” is the inability to fully discover with 100% accuracy the causes to the problem being considered, and therefore many explanations will be offered.


The reality is a “Wicked Problem” is a symptom of other problems, so a “Wicked Problem” is often an intended or unintended consequence of another problem or another problem’s solution. Solutions to “Wicked Problems” can be “good or bad,” “less bad” or “more good,” but they cannot be “true” or “untrue” because of all the factors noted above (at least). 


In order to have “the” right solutions one would have to claim to know all the variables, and have the ability to account for all the various factors in the individuals who are experiencing homelessness.


So what do we do? The best we can, with the most good that we can, given the many thoughts, ideas, and voices.


Sadly, with “Wicked Problems” we rarely get to think in terms of 100% solutions, but we must think in terms of ameliorating the impact on all. A community should do its best to constrain and restrain “bad” in its various forms.


Let’s Talk About Whittier

In 2014, some in Whittier started to, once again, notice a change in the population experiencing homelessness. The late Ted Knoll, then the Executive Director of Whittier’s First Day, observed some of the changes.


As we now know, Los Angeles County saw increases in homelessness between 2015-2019 (LA County is mentioned because homelessness is one of the public concern areas that is handled by a county entity).


For a variety of reasons, some things are handled by counties which include homelessness, mental health, medical health, jails, and courts.  Other public concerns are handled by cities, such as crime and safety, parking regulation, planning, and business licensing. 


It can get a little confusing when one starts to look at areas that are cities but are governed by counties, however, the bottomline is cities are legally responsible for certain public services, while counties are responsible for others. Yet the experience of the public problem, however, belongs to us all. This is the case with homelessness.


The Los Angeles County Continuum of Care is the regional planning body responsible for coordinating public services for those experiencing homelessness in the county. The Continuum of Care has a lead agency, and that is the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), which is an independent joint powers authority formed in the early 1990’s.


LAHSA helps to lead a large and dedicated group that means to address homelessness in all of Los Angeles County, including the City of Whittier. They are the group that holds the mandate to help the county’s homelessness concerns.


To do this, the county is divided into eight Service Planning Areas (SPAs). Whittier  (incorporated and unincorporated) is in SPA 7 with Artesia, Bell, Bell Gardens, Bellflower, Cerritos, Commerce, Cudahy, Downey, East Los Angeles, Hawaiian Gardens, Huntington Park, La Habra Heights, La Mirada, Lakewood, Maywood, Montebello, Norwalk, Pico Rivera, Santa Fe Springs, Signal Hill, Southgate, Vernon, and Walnut Park.


LAHSA is responsible for coordinating care, assistance, and managing an over $300 million budget formed by federal, state, county and city funds. This is a monumental job providing programs for shelters, housing and other services. The programs and services are designed to address the three groups of people experiencing homelessness: Single Unattached Adults, Families, and Transitional Aged Youth.


Whittier has a few local organizations which are supportive in a broad sense to the county efforts on homelessness, but also have some local emphasis. Whittier’s First Day, now led by Executive Director Irene Muro, was founded by Whittierites, the churches specifically, to address homelessness among mostly single unattached adults in Whittier.


I say “mostly” because we’ve seen instances where, out of extraordinary demands and compassion, First Day has acted immediately in support of urgent issues where someone was in jeopardy. 


Further, Whittier is fortunate to have The Whole Child based in our community. The Whole Child leads the effort of supporting families experiencing homelessness, among their primary and important mandates for the region they serve.


Again, The Whole Child, led by Constanza Pachon, is known to work diligently to have strong and effective programs, and they rise to the exceptional occasion when something out of the ordinary comes along.


For the transitional aged youth, we are fortunate to have Jovenes, Inc. which is the organization that strives to help those young people transitioning from adolescence into adulthood from out of the ordinary situations (foster care, sometimes incarceration).  Andrea Marchetti and his team do a strong job at Jovenes, Inc. 


The Cold Weather Shelter is an annual program by the Whittier Interfaith Council. This program hosts a secure and warm place for people to sleep during the cold months when people die on the streets due to exposure to the elements; Richard Balkus and the whole team are very likely saving lives.


While not directly homelessness related, the Women’s and Children’s Crisis Shelter under the leadership of Yvette Morales work to care for and rebuild victims of domestic violence, which is critical since domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness among women and children (according to the US Conference of Mayors Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in 2012). 


These organizations work diligently in their various scopes, in coordination with local needs and the county Continuum of Care. It is not easy.


The Whittier Consortium on Homelessness was formed in 2015 to bring all parts of Whittier together to look at the local expression of this large concern of homelessness.  The Whole Child, Whittier’s First Day, the Cold Weather Shelter, Whittier Area Community Church, First Friends Church, First Christian, our own City Hall, our own Police Department, the Chamber of Commerce, the Whittier Uptown Association, our colleges and school districts, the County CEO’s Office, and LAHSA were among the first groups to form the Whittier Consortium on Homelessness. 


The goal of the Consortium was to be a collaborative network looking at the problem of homelessness in Whittier to ask the right questions, incubate the best solutions, and to connect the community with what is oftentimes unseen and unthought of. The community was making strides, and the Consortium continued to live out its tagline: “Until nobody needs to be homeless” (although often we drop the “until” for brevity).


All the partners of the Consortium launched some key efforts: regularized community meetings (which have been on COVID-hold), real-time support with food and hygiene supplies directly to the local service providers so that the community had a way to focus good samaritan efforts without creating conflict complicating efforts, the mentoring program for families coming out of homelessness so that cycles are broken and lives thrive, the Hospitality House which was a collaboration of the Whole Child and the Salvation Army, and there is more.


It’s important to remember that the Hospitality House was an idea sparked by the community, incubated by the community and ultimately (through collaboration that included private donations) realized in swift fashion. The mentoring program, called Imagine Whittier, again born from the community was Imagine LA’s first spin-off attempt in all of Los Angeles County and it continues impacting the lives of many.



Enter the Courts


Separate from the progress going on in Whittier or Los Angeles County for that matter, on September 4, 2018 the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a ruling that is now simply called “Boise” or “the Boise Ruling.”


In short, the ruling, which has the force of law for sure in all areas of the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction (which is comprised of district court jurisdictions, so essentially nine states and the territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands), and as a matter of legal precedent elsewhere in the United States, found that ordinances banning sleeping outdoors in public space were unconstitutional (a violation of the 8th Amendment) if there are no other options for shelter available.


Cities within the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction were banned from enforcing such laws if there was not a housing option and resources. A significant, life impacting problem such as homelessness for which there is a county-level system, was at the moment of the ruling automatically made a city level issue in a new way. 


Imagine a large public need or “thing” (in this case, homelessness) for which there is an established large framework or system to help with (collaboration with LA County and Whittier). Now imagine for some reason which cannot be altered (the 9th Circuit Court Ruling), the functions and responsibilities of that large system (homelessness) are placed upon a much smaller system (the city) in a very real way.


We’ve experienced this very dynamic recently when thousands and thousands of our community’s parents became teachers overnight. A burden of love for sure, but still a burden and for many one they were not immediately ready for, but rose to the occasion for. Things had to shift swiftly, and imperfectly, but necessarily. Our community and all the others in the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction that relied on the larger county supportive frameworks were given a requirement if quality of life rules were going to be enforced.

Court cases and decisions seem to beget more of the same. Separate but related to the issue of homelessness, Federal Judge David Carter mediated a number of issues in Orange County related to homelessness and the legal ability to require the acceptance of help, “move people along” or arrest for violations related to sleeping or establishing “home” in public spaces. 


What is often called the Judge Carter Settlement Agreement simply is this: when a city enters into the agreement established by Judge Carter, the obligation to have a provision of beds in order to be able to direct people drops from 100% (which comes essentially from the Boise Case) to 60%. These percentages are percentages of the known count of people experiencing homelessness in a given city (notice the continued shift from county to city).


So, if a city has 100 people experiencing homelessness, they cannot (per Boise) enforce public sleeping laws unless there are 100 beds available to that city. If a city enters into the agreement with Judge Carter, and the city has 100 people experiencing homelessness, then the city can enforce certain laws if they can show (under agreement) that the community has access to a minimum of 60 beds.


On April 22, 2020, our Whittier City Council voted unanimously to enter into the settlement agreement with Judge Carter.


Our number of beds required based on the 60% formula: 139. This 139 number comes from a Whittier specific count commissioned by our city via a group called City Net. I had an opportunity to accompany City Net on two days of their count, and the Whittier Consortium on Homelessness was welcomed to a debriefing where we got to ask questions.


An additional interesting thing learned from this count by City Net was that 60% of those surveyed self-reported a mental health and/or drug/alcohol problem. Anyone who designs surveys or uses surveys professionally, knows that we are trained to recall that self-reporting surveys have a sensitivity to underreporting. There are people on our streets, as we suspected, who need support from the existing drug programs, and from our State of California in the form of mental health help. 


A navigation center with 139 beds will allow Whittier to once again make significant strides in improving the concern of homelessness in our city for all. I say “again” because Whittier has a history of taking on problems from a uniquely Whittier spirit: an effective mixture of compassion, reason, long term wisdom with short term application, and focusing on Whittier life. This is how we got Whittier’s First Day and the people who do the good work there. There are naysayers and cheerleaders to this idea, but take a moment to consider this: both naysayers and cheerleaders are in Whittier for a reason.



The Salvation Army campus on the 7900-block of Pickering Avenue was selected by the Whittier City Council as a location for a new homeless navigation center. (Photo by Keith Durflinger)


On Nextdoor (the social media app), I encountered a question about what a Navigation Center is (it was a critical comment that aimed to say that people are just switching language). One way to think of this idea is that a Navigation Center is a shelter that includes services and resources aimed at helping a person recover from homelessness, not simply being off the street. The services and resources are oftentimes existing but sometimes new; either way they are placed together for optimizing help. There’s the compassionate, Whittier spirit by the way. 


A successful Navigation Center which is in strong alignment with a few, not just one, of the City of Whittier Homelessness Plan goals, will provide comprehensive services that will include health, wellness, employment resources, and substance abuse help and counseling. There will be effective case management offering direct support to people inside the Navigation Center with the goal of becoming self-sufficient by acquiring stable income, stable housing, and the critical life skills needed that lead to not only recovery, but live a thriving life; perhaps still here in Whittier we’d hope. 


Since we must act locally, a successful Navigation Center for Whittier will be available to Whittierites experiencing homelessness. This service requirement to our local Whittierites is built into the Judge Carter Agreement that was approved by him. Help and support will first go to those with a connection to Whittier by (among other ties) family, school, job.  Why is this important? Well, remember that through decisions by the courts, onus of responsibility has been at least in part shifted to communities and their local government.  This is what we’ve seen play out in our parks and other public places. If we can, as a community, demonstrate access to beds, then we can support real recovery from homelessness and quality of life rules that we’ve all grown to expect.


Whittier is not the first Los Angeles County City to enter into the Orange County based Judge Carter Agreement. Bellflower, a city with a population of 42,300 and a homelessness census of 172 (according to their City Net count in 2019), entered into the Judge Carter Agreement, the first Los Angeles County city to do so.


Our population is just over 86,000, with a homeless census of about 231. We are now the second and the largest city of Los Angeles County to sign in agreement with the Judge. 

There will be eyes on our community. We should be eager and supportive of this opportunity that Mayor Vinateri and our City Council have worked on. With many plates spinning, we look forward to a program that continues improving the lives of Whittierites, homed or yet-to-be-homed.


“Wicked Problems” go deep and they go much longer than most people’s life spans.  What defeats or at least makes a dent in these large concerns are tenacity, collaboration, right-thinking, courage, compassion and focus. It is good that our Mayor and City Council have spoken and have directed City Hall staff to negotiate an agreement with the Salvation Army as a service provider to operate a Navigation Center. 


Looking to the near future, we should be working on encouraging our state legislators to find effective ways to improve the mental health system (including designing and implementing laws that help).


Dr. David Gonzalez, Jr. is an Uptown Whittier resident, an Associate Professor of Public Administration & Organizational Leadership, and A founding member of the Whittier Consortium on Homelessness (WCH).  The Whittier Consortium on Homelessness is a collaborative network aimed at finding workable solutions for the concern of homelessness in Whittier.

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