Pitchforks, Torches & Peace at Parnell Park

On Thursday, November 21, Community Watch (Whittier and Surrounding Areas) posted a hateful flyer on Facebook calling on Whittier to harass and bully homeless people in Parnell Park on Saturday morning.

That night, an unhoused woman named Lana died, alone, in Whittier’s Central Park. Lana had received a diagnosis of Stage Four cancer in an emergency room visit just weeks before, and was told she had a few weeks left to live.

“My Dear Friends,” First Christian Pastor Layne Beamer posted on Facebook Friday night, “I am heartbroken to inform you that a woman died in Central Park last night.

“I am heartbroken to inform you that there is a rally planned at Parnell Park tomorrow morning against our neighbors who are in Parnell Park.

“I want to let you know that you have choices. There will be a vigil to Memorialize our Deceased Homeless Neighbors in Central Park at 8:30am. There will be a group gathering to bring breakfast peace to Parnell Park at 8am. We just learned about both events recently.

“I know that timing of these events creates a conflict, but I believe both places are important to be.”

On Saturday at 8am in Parnell Park, in advance of the advertised rally, about 20 housed residents sat down for a peace breakfast and conversation with the community camping there in tents. First Christian Church provided breakfast burritos and coffee.

Parnell Park residents said they had been resigned to being hated and were surprised to find support from the community. Housed and unhoused participants talked about the situation at hand, and about their lives. Some friendships were struck up.

In response to the threat of violence, law enforcement provided a palpable presence, with a sizable turnout from both Whittier PD and L.A. Sheriffs Department. The encampment area was cordoned off. The National Lawyers Guild Los Angeles sent out a Legal Observer who was on site all day.

By 10am, about 10-12 protesters were marching on the far side of the park. Press included CBS 2 and El Paisano. The Greenleaf Guardian published photos of the protesters. Claudia Morales of Social Justice Healing provided Facebook Live coverage at the encampment.

Members of the encampment at Parnell described how they work together as a community. In addition to camp rules providing accountability, members have chores and cooperate to keep the space clean. Members of the encampment were seen to take out the trash, clean tables, and rake leaves. A camp leader described a successful negotiation with Parks staff for more reasonable restroom access hours in exchange for doing their part to care for the park. Campers regularly move their belongings from the park so that Parks staff can do maintenance work. 

Members of the encampment said they do not want to live in the park, but affordable housing is unavailable, and waiting lists for services are full. One man has a job at a popular local restaurant that doesn’t pay enough to afford rent. Another man lost his job three months ago and has been in the park for two months. One woman has been on a Section 8 waiting list for 12 years. Another woman got a visit from her mother and son because they were worried about the rally; one woman present had stayed in the park overnight with her homeless sister to protect her. One of the residents is a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair. There are several well-loved, well-behaved dogs in the camp. One young woman was quietly disturbed and talking to herself; her friend said she had an ordinary life until a year ago, when she witnessed her best friend’s brutal murder. When she had a nervous breakdown, her parents kicked her out.

Pastor Beamer, along with Whittier City Councilman Henry Bouchot and First United Methodist Senior Pastor Angela Galanis, organized the simultaneous vigil at Central Park in remembrance of Lana and three other unhoused members of the Whittier community who died in the past year. Several dozen people who had known Lana attended the vigil. Her death was a tragic reminder of how much more work there is to do to provide even the most basic resources to all members of our community.

To participate in addressing Whittier’s housing crisis, attend a homeless coalition-building meeting planned for Monday, December 2, 6:30pm at First Christian Church. The conversation with Parnell encampment members will also continue at future peace events.

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