At a Whittier City Council meeting on Tuesday night, at least a dozen area residents vehemently challenged early plans for a shelter on city-owned land in a suburban neighborhood along the 605 freeway.
“I’ve lived [here] for pretty much 30 years of my life, and I’ve never been as scared as I am right now,” Robert Herrera, who says he lives next to the potential shelter site on Esperanza Avenue, told the council.
Herrera says that if a homeless shelter were built in the neighborhood, he’d be worried about kids going outside “wondering if some mentally ill person is going to do something to them” or seeing “someone defecating in the street, urinating in the street.”
“Esperanza translated into English means hope,” said Michelle Tapia. “This small yet powerful four letter word is what growing up on Esperanza gave my family. Hope is what you will take away from us by building a homeless shelter in our small community.”
“People will be scared to let their kids go outside,” said Art Tapia.
Whittier officials say they’re still in the very early stages of planning the shelter. On Tuesday night, the City Council voted in favor of a memorandum of understanding with the county of Los Angeles for $300,000 in funding.
The site hasn’t been finalized, but city officials are looking at putting it on a three-acre parcel that abuts unincorporated Los Angeles County, in a residential neighborhood between the freeway and San Gabriel River
In the next four to six months, city manager Jeff Collier says the goal is to complete an environmental analysis of site at 5913 Esperanza Avenue and come up with a preliminary design. The number of beds and types of services that would be offered still needs to be sussed out.
“There’s nothing keeping another encampment from popping up,” says City Councilmember Henry Bouchot. “This is our best time for this.”
The number of homeless residents across the Los Angeles region has ballooned 12 percent countywide over the last year, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. In the south eastern portion of Los Angeles County, which includes Whittier, there are 6,891 homeless residents, up from 4,569 in 2018, the Whittier Daily News reports.
Contrary to public perception, most homeless residents, according to LAHSA, do not have a serious mental illness or substance abuse issues. The vast majority lack permanent shelter, with many living in vehicles and tents.
Referencing a September decision from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that prevents cities from prosecuting people who sleep on sidewalks and other public spaces—if they lack enough housing or shelter beds—Bouchot says that if Whittier can build enough shelter beds, it can start cleaning up the parks and medians that have attracted encampments.
He supports putting the shelter on the Esperanza site, but at least one city councilmember is wary.
“I’m not a fan of densifying homelessness in a region that’s already impoverished,” said Councilmember Josué Alvarado.
“I’m almost flabbergasted at the idea that we’re trying to export our problem to your backyard,” he said, addressing residents who live in unincorporated Los Angeles County and oppose the shelter going up on Esperanza. “The brunt of the homeless issue in the city of Whittier is always exported to the west side, now it’s including some of the unincorporated areas.”
Those residents told the council that the neighborhood is already challenged by crime, graffiti, and disinvestment.
“I can’t tell you how many times my mother has picked up used needles from her backyard,” said Melissa De Luna. “Adding a homeless shelter will only makes things worse.”
Throughout Los Angeles, communities have fought plans for homeless shelters, from Venice Beach to Koreatown to Sherman Oaks, and Bouchout says that no matter where Whittier puts a shelter, some residents would resist it.
“There’s perhaps no population more reviled, more hated, and more pushed out than homeless people,” Bouchot said. “The inequity really lies with homeless people who have nowhere to sleep, nowhere to rest, nowhere to find comfort from the deprivations of our society.”