The Whittier City Council called an emergency meeting on Monday, January 6, after a 22-year-old woman was found dead of an apparent overdose at Parnell Park on New Year’s morning and a gunman attacked the encampment just days later. In the end, the Council voted to give a 10-day warning to the residents of the Parnell Park encampment before a temporary park closure.
The Council also agreed to engage People Assisting The Homeless (PATH), Whittier’s First Day, possibly the Sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Services Team (HOST), and other agencies to get residents into housing and services during that 10-day period. A curfew will be implemented once the park undergoes a thorough cleanup and is reopened to the public.
At the start of the meeting, before opening the floor to public comment, Mayor Joe Vinatieri said, “We call this special meeting due to the public outcry and concern over the loss of a young woman in our community and other incidents at Parnell Park. We need to have a frank and honest discussion about how to address the attractant that the encampment is causing without violating the rights of individuals experiencing homelessness in our community.
“Before we get started, I want all of us to join in a moment of silence for the young lady that passed, Ms. Ortega. I understand that her sister and mother are present…I also want to remind everybody, with mother and sister here, to be respectful in their comments, please. Somebody has died. It is the least that we can do as part of our community, we look out for each other and we are respectful.”
Whittier residents filled the Council Chambers, hallway, stairs, and ground floor. Many sat in chairs in the lobby, while others lined up out the door of the meeting room to voice their concerns. News outlets including FOX 11, NBC 4, Telemundo 52, and CBS 2 were also present.
Megan Ortega‘s mother was the first to speak. “You will never know the pain I’m feeling right now that my daughter’s life was taken. I don’t want anyone else to get hurt…Megan, my baby girl, wouldn’t have wanted this to happen to anyone, she was a kind soul,” she said through tears. “There is horrible things happening at the park that I have to listen to…I can’t grieve in peace because people are trying to hurt others.”
Most residents who spoke in Public Comment expressed themselves respectfully. Some offered their condolences to Ortega’s family. Others voiced objection to the Council framing the homeless, not homelessness, as the problem, and called for housing and service solutions for Whittier’s unhoused residents.
However, it was hard to miss the mean-spirited demeanor of many in attendance. Despite the mayor’s instruction to be respectful, some in the audience interrupted Jordan Ortega, Megan’s younger sister, when she was voicing her concerns. The council had given Megan’s family an extra minute in order to express their grief; some members of the audience said that they deserved more time because “other people get an extra minute when they have opposing views.” Other commenters referred to unhoused individuals with words like “trash”.
A few members of the Parnell Park encampment stepped up to the podium to speak for themselves. Disabled Vietnam veteran William Vance Sowders, who was recently hit by a car, said he has received some help from different organizations over the last few years, but still does not have permanent housing.
Mayor Vinatieri offered to help, promising follow through and saying, “You are a vet. Vets are very important to us, and we’ll do what we need to do to help you as long as you want help.”
After two hours of Public Comment, the council decided to cut commenting time from two minutes to one.
Sam Garcia, an unhoused man currently living in Parnell Park, stepped up to the podium just after Public Comment was cut back to one minute, and having carefully rehearsed two minutes, broke down in frustration before he could complete his comment.
Interviewed later, Garcia shared what he planned to say, “I’m angry that they politicized my friend’s death. Just because we’re homeless it doesn’t mean this is just a homeless problem. If they close the park down, where are we supposed to go? I don’t want to be homeless, I don’t want to be in this situation. Yes, they offered me a bed, but I have a service dog, a registered service dog, that I’m not allowed to take with me. I lived in a motel for a year and a half before this, but it got expensive. I was working the graveyard shift at the time I just couldn’t keep up with the cost of the motel, feeding me, and my dog.”
The council had a short recess to talk about litigation risks before publicly discussing a course of action. City Manager Brian Saeki described some options for clearing the encampment from the park–a legally risky move because of the Boise decision.
Saeki’s first option was the complete closure of Parnell Park. Option two was an immediate and strict curfew while continuing to work with HOST to place displaced residents in housing and services. The third option was to give reasonable notice of an impending curfew so that the people living at the encampment would have time to move their belongings before the curfew is put into place. The fourth option was to give the encampment roughly 30 days for HOST to help residents at the park and enforce a strict curfew soon after.
“I went through that relatively quickly and I know there will be several questions that you may have,” Saeki said. “All of these options are going to require that we come back to the City Council with a better plan. The special Council meeting was called yesterday. We posted this on the agenda and put this together as best we could.”
City staff informed the Council that the HOST team follows a protocol they have used 49 times in the past to dismantle homeless encampments without any lawsuits being filed. They have done this by bringing in more resources county-wide to get appropriate housing and services for the people in the encampments. This process takes at least 30 days. HOST has indicated they would probably not agree to work with the Parnell Park community unless the city council gave them enough time to complete their established protocol. They could begin tomorrow, but they could not complete the protocol in 10 days.
Council member Cathy Warner inquired about the eleven beds recently claimed by the City at Whittier’s First Day, and was informed that five of those beds were now available.
“As early as today we have offered every individual at that park a bed and we had one taker,” Whittier Police Captain Aviv Bar said. Captain Bar said that over the course of many months, police have offered beds to unhoused residents, with only two takers.
Eyewitnesses at the park encampment said that armed police offers knocked on tents with their batons to make this offer.
At the City of Whittier Social Services Commission meeting the following night (Tuesday, January 7), City staff reported that of 17 regular members of the Parnell Park encampment, 13 have case numbers and are already on waiting lists for the services they need.
Council members Henry Bouchot and Josue Alvarado both expressed their displeasure over the length of time it took the Council to come up with a solution. Mayor Pro Tem Fernando Dutra asked a question that left the room silent:
“What kind of substance abuse and detox opportunities do we offer in the city for those individuals who are in fact going through drug and alcohol issues, does anybody know?”
After a minute, Dutra said, “I don’t like the silences. That’s problematic, wouldn’t you say?”
It is a question that might be answered next Tuesday during the City Council’s regular meeting, where Council is likely to update the community about when their 10-day plan will be put into motion.
On Thursday, January 9, Council member Alvarado posted the following on social media: