Some say unhoused Whittier residents refuse services. Is this true? If so, why? Sustainable City News interviews six residents at Parnell Park about what keeps them unhoused.
This is not a scientific survey. In the interest of fairness and accuracy in reporting, this article shares a local point of view that has received little media coverage.
Interviews with Johnny and Sabrina
Johnny has been living at Parnell Park for the past six months. He previously lived in Whittier for seven years before he lost his job, and with it the house he was renting.
“They offer services, but it’s not really services,” he says. “They’re giving us a temporary… Band-Aid, really quick until our time’s up… at the shelter or whatever they provided that’s temporary, just to get us out of here with our stuff on our backs. I don’t think it’s a help that way.”
Sabrina has been at Parnell Park a couple years off and on. She says she is here because, “I made a bad decision a long time ago, and I take full responsibility for that, and my family doesn’t need to pay for my mistakes, but they do accept me for who I am.”
Whittier First Day connected Sabrina with a case worker from Los Angeles County Mental Health who has helped her start the process to apply for permanent housing. She’s been in that process for about a year, having to start over three or four times. She names a housed community member as a serial perpetrator of property theft, including her housing paperwork, which she says has led to delays in accessing permanent housing.
“First time [the housed community member] stole all my stuff, mine and my boyfriend’s stuff, I don’t know what he did with it, but he did that three or four times. He used to come and harass us here and when we were up by the Roadhouse [Original Roadhouse Grill] on Whittier Boulevard, and when we stayed behind the Orchard’s [Orchard Supply Hardware] on Whittier Boulevard,” she said. “He would harass us almost daily. He would come and take our stuff. He did it to quite a few people.”
Sabrina says she personally witnessed [the housed community member] take her belongings only once. “I caught him when we were staying at Leffingwell Ranch Park. We had just got back and we seen him carrying one of my suitcases and some other stuff of ours. We actually got our suitcase back, but all the rest of our stuff was gone, only for like a couple of hours later to find it over there in Sprouts-in the Sprouts parking lot, all over the trash and thrown around.”
Sabrina said she had to start the application process each time her belongings were stolen, because her stolen belongings included her paperwork and legal documents. “He’s made me start my paperwork over quite a few times. And he’s also caused problems between me and my family,” she said.
Although Whittier First Day has taken her to the doctor and helped her get General Relief, Sabrina has turned down temporary shelter with the organization because, in her experience, shelters are less safe than camping at Parnell Park. She has not been in the First Day shelter, but says about her experience at other shelters in L.A. and Orange County:
“I say about 90% of people don’t understand. You get your stuff stolen in shelters. You can be assaulted in shelters. The drug use is way higher … It’s not like they keep an eye on people or … have security or anything like that.” In the last couple of weeks, since the Whittier City Council’s decision to close Parnell Park, First Day, PATH, and LAHSA have increased outreach at the park, giving people their business cards, but getting permanent housing and other services takes a long time, she said.
Sabrina says people don’t understand. They “don’t bother to even try to ask, or try to understand people’s situations. You know, not all of us are out here by choice. Everyone’s situation is different. Not everyone is a drug addict. Not everyone is an alcoholic. Everyone is different.”
Interviews with Ron and Joseph
Another man, who we’ll call Ron, asked that his name not be used because his children live in the area. His young son lives with his aunt, and his daughter won scholarships to Whittier College. Ron has been at Parnell Park off and on for two years. He grew up in Whittier, but lived on the east coast for 11 years with his wife. She left him and moved back to Whittier with her mother, and he followed her. Ron took care of his own mother after she had her first stroke. She supported them both with her income, and he supported her by caregiving. They ended up living in a car; then, she had a second stroke and entered hospice. With no income, he ended up in the park.
Ron says, “I was hard pressed to find a job. I tried to get work, but there are so many obstacles in the way when you don’t have four walls and a roof. Everything is just so hard to get done. All the little things you do in a day-brushing your teeth, you know? Everything takes so much longer that by the time you’re done getting ready to go–you’ve gotten dressed, you’ve had your breakfast, you know–things that people do–it’s already 1:30 in the afternoon. Even though you got up at four, it’s already 1:30 in the afternoon, because of all the things you have to do. I’m exaggerating a little but … everything is harder.”
Asked about offers of help, he said, “I’ve been offered all kinds of things. But, none of it is really there. I don’t think it’s really there. I mean, I’ve been here two years. I was here when they did this last year [referring to Whittier’s removal of an encampment at Parnell before Easter 2019].” He continued, “I’m not saying there isn’t help out there, I’m saying sometimes you gotta reach for it a bit harder. Have a little luck on your side or something like that because there are so many of us now that are homeless. The resources are stretched thin. Everything is stretched thin, there are hard times.”
The only services Ron has been offered are temporary shelters. “They are usually full, they’re always full. Unless you want to relocate down to downtown, or Skid Row, or down there. I don’t think there really is much, aside from donations, that are offered here. You can go to programs if you have a drug problem. You have to fit a certain category.”
Joseph, who has been at Parnell for three months, described his struggles to find housing.
“I try to find resources to find ways to [get housing] but it’s very limited because I’m not a heavy drug addict,” Joseph says, “or I’m not AB109 and I don’t meet the criteria. When I left my house with my kids, I couldn’t go stay at the battered women’s shelter.”
Interviews with Nicole and Roman
Nicole, who recently returned to Parnell Park from the hospital, works with the PATH program. They approached her in Leffingwell Park, got her ID, and have been working with her to get housing, but it can take up to a year. PATH is no longer allowed to come to the encampment, she says. They can only meet people a few blocks away or at the community center. A new outreach program came a couple months ago, but they have not been back. Nicole doesn’t remember their name.
Roman, 52, has lived in Whittier his whole life. He ended up unhoused after a car accident that left him without work. He has been at Parnell on and off for a few years.
“Nobody wants to be homeless, I didn’t want to be homeless,” he says. “I had never even been to this part of Whittier before, I lived my whole life in the other side of Whittier until I had to come here.”
Roman spoke about a sudden and frequent enforcement of no bicycles on the sidewalk. This law, often overlooked for cyclists of all backgrounds, has gotten unhoused people all over the city into trouble. “They violate our rights almost every day. They make up reasons why they’re going to pull us over,” he says.
Parnell Park Residents & Services by Law Enforcement
The Whittier Police Department frequently stops by Parnell to offer access to beds. During the emergency Whittier City Council meeting on Monday, January 6th of this year, Whittier Police Captain Aviv Bar said, “As early as today, we have offered every individual at that park a bed and we had one taker.” Captain Bar said that over the course of many months, police have offered beds to unhoused residents, with only two takers. Unhoused residents cite the Department’s policy of handcuffing anyone who accept offers of shelter as a deterrent.
Nicole describes a memorable offer of services by Whittier PD: “Well, there was one time that I heard from the street-they drove by and … they stopped on the curb and from their loud speakers said ‘There’s five beds available in local shelters.’ They didn’t even announce what shelter it was and just kept going.” They didn’t wait to see if anyone responded, she says. “They didn’t even get out of their car.”
In general, Parnell Park residents say that the encampment’s relationship with Whittier PD is a good one.
(Whittier PD did not return calls requesting comment.)
Not citing a particular law enforcement agency, Joseph says, “They criminalized people sleeping in their cars, they criminalized people sleeping in RVs, they’re criminalizing people with backpacks, they’re criminalizing people that are on bikes.”
A Regional and Global Housing Crisis
Moving the needle on homelessness seems difficult everywhere in Los Angeles County. In November, columnist Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times reported that in the entire city of Los Angeles, over eight months, only four (!) people had been placed in permanent housing.
Lopez cited the problem as a lack of leadership and accountability, saying, “Encampments continue to multiply despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on housing and services…and there is no single person or government authority to answer for any of it.”
Lack of access to housing has become a global phenomenon affecting developed countries, including Britain, where one in 200 residents is unhoused.
Limitations of Local Housing and Services
Those interviewed at Parnell Park cite long wait times, limited housing and services, and lack of eligibility among the reasons they remain unhoused.
These interviews reflect what we already know from the data: There aren’t enough services, beds, or low-income housing units. According to the 2019 LAHSA Homeless Count, the City of Whittier is home to 286 unhoused residents. First Day’s 40 shelter beds cannot serve a population of that size.
According to Whittier’s 2018 Homeless Plan, “a gap exists in housing for single unattached individuals experiencing homelessness who are under the age of 55. It is estimated that approximately 100 beds, in the city, designated for individuals at the Very Low Income level have closed in the past six years.” These include 30 Single Room Occupancy (SRO) beds at the Bright Hotel and another 40 at The Village, plus 28 beds at the Salvation Army on Pickering.
According to those interviewed at Parnell Park, all need permanent housing, some need supportive housing, most need jobs, and some need rehabilitation from substance abuse or other services before they will be “housing ready”. As Sabrina said, “Everyone is different.”
Joseph describes the Parnell Park encampment as a “small community, an actual family.” The residents we interviewed say they’ll have nowhere to go when the park closes on Monday, January 27. With just days to go, their future remains unclear.
Photo of Becky by In My Back Yard.