Opinion: Let’s Stick to the Facts on Homelessness

“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,” Greenleaf Guardian Editor Eric Pierce wrote in an inaugural op-ed published on Friday. “And I’m willing to bet most Whittier residents — generous as they are — would be happy to lend that hand.” 

It’s a nice thought, but what are the facts?

What does it take for a Whittier resident facing the prospect of homelessness to get a safe place to sleep at night in Whittier? Given our bed shortage, it’s not easy.

For families, homelessness prevention services are available through The Whole Child, but the shelter in Whittier is often full. Measure H funds made it possible to open a beautiful new shelter in Echo Park two months ago, but some families can’t accept a shelter that far away from school, work, or other ties to Whittier. 

Until recently, in order for a single adult to get services through First Day, they had to  to prove actual homelessness, and couch surfing didn’t count. Now some prevention services are available under Measure H, but they are slot-driven, so they may not be available at the time they are needed, putting people on the streets. 

“It becomes difficult to be sympathetic,” Pierce continued, “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.” 

I was surprised to read this crude vilification. Pierce, as a journalist, has an obligation to the facts. These facts include that over half of L.A.’s (including Whittier’s) homeless are on the street for the first time, for economic reasons, not addiction. The literature shows that 90% of homeless residents placed in appropriate housing (transitional, supportive, etc.) stay housed.

Most importantly, the fact remains that lack of restroom access necessarily results in public defecation. More on this in a minute.

According to the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, people living with mental illness most often find themselves homeless because of poverty and a lack of low-income housing. The stresses resulting from combined mental illness and homelessness also “can lead to other factors such as increased levels of alcohol and drug abuse and violent victimization that reinforce the connection between health and homelessness.” 

Once a person has exhausted the resources of family and friends, been put on waiting lists or dumped in another city by people who seemed to be offering help. It is not at all surprising that unhoused residents might distrust the suggestions of “helpful” people. Statistically speaking, trauma and stress can trigger cognitive issues and substance use. Being housed eliminates a host of stresses and leads to sustained independent living for three-quarters of formerly homeless residents. A quarter require supportive housing.  

One of the stressors of homelessness is shame. Whittier school districts report that 2,000 of our public school children are homeless. Children are not immune to homelessness vitriol and shaming, and it can have lasting effects: A friend of mine, who was homeless when her daughters were young, only saw their bravery during that time; it was later, in college, that both young women developed anxiety and depressive disorders.

Pierce writes, “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.” 

After hearing similar complaints in Public Comment last Monday, the Whittier City Council questioned Police Chief Jeff Piper, who said, “We’re responding to between 130 and 140 calls per day and every time we get a call because somebody’s urinating, we’re not out there for 2 to 3 hours sometimes. [Callers] do get frustrated with us and I can understand that.” 

The Council never asked park personnel whether public toilets were unlocked or could be made available.

“In the instances police officers do respond in time, they have the option of issuing a citation. But the effectiveness of citations is questionable.” Pierce writes.

Issuing a citation does nothing to meet the basic (and without relief, involuntary) human need to eliminate bodily wastes when nearby sanitation facilities are locked. Presently, restrooms are unlocked in Parnell Park from 7am-4pm, in Palm Park from 7am-2pm, and at Central Park from 7am-5pm. 

I moved next to Central Park in 2018, so I can attest: A 2019 decision by the City to open the park’s restrooms just a few hours longer has nearly eliminated the stench experienced in 2018 from individuals using the doorway areas when finding the doors locked.

Making public restrooms available would be a more sanitary and cost-effective way of keeping our streets and parks clean. Isn’t it more cost-effective to unlock public restrooms or to provide porta-potties than to provide similar facilities in jail? 

Large numbers of people with no place to call home is a humanitarian crisis that policing cannot solve. Policing will not house one person, unless you count our already overcrowded jails as housing. Urgent needs include:

  • Basic sanitation where unhoused neighbors sleep
  • Emergency housing: Shelter beds with mental health treatment, addiction recovery, and employment assistance
  • Rapid rehousing: Stable places to stay while people rebuild their lives
  • Supportive housing: For people who can’t live independently, this is still the cost effective solution.
  • Permanent housing: Whittier needs hundreds (okay, thousands) of affordable housing units, some of which can be provided through gentle densification and upzoning

Citing or jailing residents suffering from the acute housing shortage in Whittier and nearby cities will not solve the humanitarian crisis. Until the City can provide shelter beds and services, and ultimately adequate affordable housing, they can mitigate sanitation issues by unlocking public restrooms where they are needed most.

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