Whittier community transforms Parnell Park from safety hazard back to safe haven

The park is now free from homeless encampments after the community and city leaders took much needed action.

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Saturday, July 10, 2021
Whittier park goes from safety hazard back to safe haven
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Here's how one community used tough love and a helping hand to turn around Parnell Park which had become overrun with homeless encampments.

WHITTIER, Calif. (KABC) -- Children playing in the park is what green open spaces are designed for, but for the last couple of years, children at Whittier's Parnell Park were a rare sight. With 60 to 75 people living there, day and night, the park was overrun by tents.

"So basically who was hanging out here was homeless individuals, and they have issues, we understand, but it was perceived as not safe," said Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri.

"The police officers would come out here on a regular basis and there would be issues with drugs, that sort of thing that they would take care of, and people would be arrested, but of course, as we now know, there was no prosecution," explained Whittier Mayor Pro Tem Cathy Warner.

Then in January 2020, a woman was found dead at the park.

"Basically, you know what, enough's enough. We can't allow this to happen any longer," said Vinatieri.

City leaders took action deciding to reinstate an anti-camping law; however, due to a federal court decision, the city was required to provide housing for its homeless.

On Sept. 1, 2020, Whittier opened a temporary homeless shelter, striking a deal with the Salvation Army to manage the facility. The shelter is fully funded by Whittier, giving them control over who can stay there.

"We have a criteria set up that says if you were born and raised here or if you had a job here that you lost or if you have family here... if you have a Whittier nexus then please come on board," said Vinatieri.

With the temporary shelter open and the construction of a permanent shelter underway, county and LASD outreach teams went to work to clear the encampments.

"They got to know them and what they tried to do is find placements for them and there were a number of people who said, 'Yes I want a placement, I don't really like to be here,' but, a number of them said, 'No I'm not interested in placement' and we made it very clear to them that you cannot continue to be here after a certain point in time and if you choose not to move on then you are going to get a citation and a possible arrest," said Vinatieri.

RELATED | SoCal nonprofit takes unorthodox approach to help SoCal homeless

Many organizations try to help or house the homeless, but one local nonprofit is using what may be seen as an unorthodox approach. Instead of a housing-first model, the organization focuses on harm reduction, by first meeting someone where they are physically and mentally.

The result? Today Parnell Park is free from encampments and once again open to families and their children. The city's anti-overnight camping law is strictly enforced.

It is progress, but homelessness remains a concern.

"We still have lots of work to do. We feel like we're up to the task. We are encouraged by what has been accomplished and we want to keep moving forward," remarked Warner. "I think there is always a solution, we just have to find it."