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Whittier votes to open emergency homeless shelter at Uptown Senior Center

WHITTIER — The Whittier City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to open an emergency temporary homeless shelter at the Uptown Senior Center. 


The shelter is meant to operate as a temporary facility until the Salvation Army opens its more permanent Homeless Navigation Center on Pickering Avenue early next year. 


The Salvation Army will operate the temporary shelter as well, which will have a capacity of 139 people. 


Council members approved sending approximately $1.5 million to get the shelter operational. 


“This just goes to prove we’re serious about how we take care of our homeless,” said Councilman Fernando Dutra. “And I think it’s timely that we do this in light of the fact that winter is just a few months away.” 


Officials said the Uptown Senior Center was an ideal location for a temporary shelter because of its location near the Salvation Army and police station. The senior center is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 


The shelter will be staffed with case managers, housing navigators, security, shower attendants, and janitorial crews. While the Salvation Army will operate the shelter, Whittier will provide security cameras, internet access, trash services, utilities, and food services. 


Assistant City Manager Shannon DeLong said the facility will be in “as good or even better condition” when the center reopens to seniors next year. 


Council members said plans for a temporary shelter have been discussed for several months but the issue was exacerbated by the coronavirus.


“Now that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and we’re seeing such a severe economic impact, and I think in some ways we’re just starting to see what that looks like, this is unfortunately almost the beginning of something instead of the end of it,” said Mayor Pro Tem Henry Bouchot. 


“I wish this was the solution but the middle class is really suffering right now and we’re going to see more homelessness,” Bouchot added. “So while we are complying with the letter of the law, and we’re going to be able to enforce our anti-camping laws, I hope that we will keep an open mind and a big picture vision about how do we actually address the extreme cost of living here in Southern California and in our city, and what do we do about people who just, for a number of reasons, aren’t able or willing to make it out here.” 


Mayor Joe Vinatieri called the shelter “a really big deal.” 


“We are going to have some folks who, because of the pandemic, are going to be out on the street,” he said. “And now by doing this, we’re prepared. 


“And we’re talking about Whittier people. We’re not talking about everyone from L.A. County or Orange County, we’re talking about Whittier people. These are the residents of Whittier, this is their money, and it’s going to Whittier people. 


“Whittier has been a leader in our region on homelessness and that started way before Measure H [L.A. County’s homeless tax initiative],” Vinatieri added. “We’ve been out front from the get go.”


Councilmember Jessica Martinez thanked city staffers for their work on making the shelter a reality. 


“We don’t want to become another San Francisco, that’s for sure, and you’re preventing it right now from happening,” she said. 


In a statement, the Whittier Consortium on Homelessness said it was “very happy” about the city council’s decision to open a temporary emergency shelter. 


“The community has made good strides toward supporting recovery from homelessness in our city,” the consortium said. “It has not been easy but the community has demonstrated that consistent, focused, and wise ideas can result in good outcomes. 


“We look forward to seeing the permanent Navigation Center opened, but we are also grateful for the temporary help of an emergency shelter.”

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