Whittier Moves Forward on Homeless Navigation Center

A new navigation center on Pickering Avenue would be the second homeless shelter operated by the Salvation Army in Whittier. Photo: Salvation Army, Whittier, https://whittier.salvationarmy.org/whittier_corps/provide-shelter/
A new navigation center on Pickering Avenue would be the second homeless shelter operated by the Salvation Army in Whittier. Photo: Salvation Army, Whittier, https://whittier.salvationarmy.org/whittier_corps/provide-shelter/

Earlier this year, the city of Whittier announced both a site and a service provider for a new homeless navigation center that will provide 139 beds for people experiencing homelessness as well as access to resources to help them transition to more permanent housing. In the 2020 Los Angeles County homeless count, Whittier counted 232 individuals living on the streets or in cars/RVs.

A navigation center program is designed to support highly vulnerable and long-term homeless residents who are often fearful of accessing traditional shelters and services. Navigation Centers provide room and board while case managers work to connect people to income, public benefits, health services, shelter, and housing. Navigation Centers are different from traditional shelters in that they have few barriers to entry and intensive case management.  Also, unlike traditional shelters, people with partners, pets, and possessions are welcome.

“The navigation center gives us the most flexibility. Depending on what you have going on, you can increase or decrease the programs to meet a person’s needs,” according to Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri.

“Navigation centers are the first step to see what a person’s needs are before you can move them in to temporary supportive or even permanent supportive housing. At the same time, you can provide some supportive housing there.”

The city’s efforts to open this navigation center began in 2018, when the city council approved its homeless action plan and federal courts ruled that “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

The Martin v. Boise court decision prohibited many cities, including Whittier, from enforcing anti-camping regulations or other laws targeting people experiencing homelessness if the city did not have shelter beds available. Local officials point to this measure as one reason homelessness in Whittier has grown recently, although there has been a simultaneous rise in the overall number of people experiencing homelessness throughout the Southland.

Whittier joined a lawsuit brought by the Orange County Catholic Worker seeking some clarity on how Martin v. Boise impacts California communities. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter required that communities have enough beds available in homeless shelters for sixty percent of the residents experiencing homelessness inside their city borders before they can enforce regulations on overnight camping, sidewalk obstruction, or other “quality of life” issues.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors, defendants in the original lawsuit, agreed to a settlement with these terms in July of last year. Whittier voluntarily agreed to the same terms, and to oversight by Judge Carter, in late April of this year. The Orange County Catholic Worker called the settlement good news for those experiencing homelessness, both because Whittier was agreeing to build a new shelter in its city and because police wouldn’t be allowed to arrest homeless people “carte blanche” but would instead help place them in an appropriate shelter.

A couple of weeks later, the City of Whittier announced a deal with the Salvation Army to operate a homeless navigation center that could open in 2021. To make things easier, the shelter will operate on land already owned by the Salvation Army, saving the city headaches and money – although Whittier will be responsible for renovating the existing building to make it ready for new tenants.

“I was in Judge Carter’s court the day that the Salvation Army said they were willing to take all of their thrift stores, all of their facilities, and re-do them to put beds (for the homeless) in them,” said Vinatieri.

“We’re now the beneficiaries of that change in policy. We look forward to finishing our agreement with them and moving forward as quickly as we can with the navigation center. We want to be able to say to the people of Whittier that are homeless, ‘We have a place for you. We can help you.’ ”

A full public process under the state’s environmental and conditional use permit processes is promised, although staff was recently directed by the city council to get the project completed as quickly as possible. Vinatieri is offering updates on the project in a regular column with the Greenleaf Guardian.

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