Compared to some other Southern California cities, Whittier does not have much of a homeless problem. On any given day, about 50 to 100 homeless people call Whittier home.
Nevertheless, faced with a perceived influx of homeless into the city of 79,000, the Whittier City Council last week voted to try to limit homeless services. The council asked social service agencies to help only homeless "Whittier-ites," that is, those who used to have homes in Whittier or are related to people who do.
The council also asked agencies to require capable homeless people to work in exchange for assistance. And it threatened to withhold funding from those agencies that do not comply.
"We want to do what is appropriate for homeless people," Mayor Bob Henderson said, "but we don't want to become a magnet for everybody else's problems." Henderson added that the new rules are "a preemptive thing" to prevent Whittier's homeless population from growing.
The problem in Whittier came to a head last spring, officials said. City Council members had received increased complaints, particularly from the uptown commercial district, about aggressive panhandling, people sleeping in doorways and groups of transients congregating in parks.
"I get more calls on the homeless issue than any other service," Councilman Allan Zolnekoff said. "It's affecting some people's quality of life uptown."
Whittier residents and officials point out that the city has a long-standing image as a "city that cares," noting that there are more programs for homeless people in Whittier than in surrounding communities. But officials began to wonder if the relatively large number of assistance programs for the homeless in Whittier--including shelters, food service programs, even showers--were acting as a magnet for homeless people throughout the region.
"The question was, are all these activities and services making the problem worse?" Henderson said. "There were a lot of anecdotal stories about people saying, 'Hey, if you're homeless a great place to go is Whittier.' "
The City Council asked the city Social Services Commission to study the issue and come up with some proposed solutions. Earlier this month, the commission completed its report, which subsequently was approved by the City Council. The commission's recommendations included:
* Keeping most homeless services available only to people with local ties to Whittier. The report said, "We should discourage the homeless who come from others areas . . . drawn because they have heard of the many services we provide. These out-of-the-area homeless would receive limited help by our agencies and would then be referred back to their own community."
City officials say they are still working on a definition of what constitutes "local ties" to Whittier.
* Requiring homeless people to work, when possible, in exchange for services they receive. Work could include helping maintain shelters and parks.
* Discouraging panhandling by distributing assistance vouchers or referral cards to the public to be used instead of cash donations to the homeless.
* "Zero tolerance" for illegal behavior by homeless people, such as public intoxication and aggressive panhandling.
* Developing a regional plan for homeless services so that "each city and locality within the county . . . (will) bear its fair share of responsibility for assisting the homeless population."
Also, the commission recommended that city homeless funds be reserved for the agencies that agree to abide by the new rules when they provide services for the homeless.
In effect, the city is saying that if the five social agencies that receive city funds for homeless programs do not abide by the new rules, they won't get any city money for their programs.
"We just want to make sure we're all together on this," community services director Sal Failla said.
Last week the council voted to release one-third of the $26,000 set aside for the five agencies that provide homeless assistance. City officials say the rest will be given to the agencies as they demonstrate that they are cooperating with the city in implementing the new rules.
Not everyone was pleased with the recommendations. At public hearings, some people questioned whether helping only the homeless people with local ties and requiring the homeless to work in exchange for services was either legal or fair.
But city officials and at least some representatives of the social service agencies say they think the new requirements are necessary.
"It's a balanced approach to many competing viewpoints," Failla said. "The Whittier community is very compassionate to people who need help."
"The people on the council are caring people," said Bea Comini, a longtime supporter and organizer of homeless assistance programs in Whittier. "But they're caught in a bad situation. There are homeless people everywhere right now.
'At least in Whittier we're talking about it and trying to do something about it. A lot of other cities aren't even talking about it."
Some of the people who provide homeless services appear ambivalent about the new measures.
"If people hear that one city offers really good programs, that's going to bring them in. On that level I'm concerned for my community," said Loretta Contreras, director of the Whittier Social Services Referral Center, which provides information and assistance to homeless people. "But as someone who works with homeless people, I don't see them as statistics. If I have a man across from me who needs help, how can I not help, regardless of where he is from? It's a tough choice. But you can't help everyone."
"There really are two sides to it," said Geoff Nelson, pastor of the Whittier Presbyterian Church and a member of the Whittier Area Interfaith Council, which oversees a number of homeless service programs. "There really aren't that many (homeless people) but they're very visible in a city like Whittier. We've had a number of success stories, but all it takes is one screw-up to make people forget a dozen successes."
Times community correspondent Ann Griffith contributed to this article.