Even with bitterly cold nights, some of Whittier's homeless were reluctant to claim the free blankets and coats that local charities left for them on a picnic table in Central Park.
One man pulled a seedy pink coat out of the pile, put it on and began doing bag lady imitations. When a volunteer came to collect leftover wraps, the homeless man tossed the coat back on the heap disdainfully.
Another homeless man, Tim Younger, 21, asked a friend to take his blanket home and keep it for him until later in the day. "I'd feel like a fool walking around Uptown carrying a blanket," Younger said.
In this city, many homeless people simply refuse to look the part. They sleep in bushes and storage sheds, but they shower at the Whittier Community Center, wash their clothes at self-service laundries and pick up free shampoo from a local barber. Like Younger, they stash their belongings by day and appear in Uptown looking like anybody else, clean shaven and clad in faded blue jeans and clean shirts.
One woman curls her hair outdoors with a butane curling iron. Like some of the others, former waitress Janine Cassaro, 22, keeps herself presentable in hopes of finding a job.
Shocked at Being Poor
Some of the people who line up in Central Park on weekdays for free food are within walking distance of where they once lived or worked. A few have part-time, minimum-wage jobs, but cannot afford to pay rent. Dale Ryan, assistant pastor of Whittier Area Baptist Fellowship, calls them "people who thought they were middle class, and are shocked at being poor."
These are the best-off of the local homeless, the ones who take advantage of available social services and still expect to work for a living. At the opposite extreme are uncounted others who remain in hiding, scorning assistance. Many are mentally ill. In the social service business, they call them "campers."
Some of Whittier's homeless say they feel forgotten. "Maybe somebody out there is trying to do something for us, but except for what comes from St. Matthias (Episcopal) Church, and the (Ecumenical) Food Center, we don't see it," said Paul Arlofski, 19.
In fact, efforts to help Whittier's homeless may be partly invisible because they are still in the planning stages. But there are actually more efforts to help the homeless in Whittier than in any other city in Southeast Los Angeles County, according to spokesmen for the United Way and the Shelter Partnership in Los Angeles.
Until the cold weather lets up, Whittier's homeless are invited to sleep in the St. Matthias parish hall. The men's shelter at the Salvation Army Citadel Corps is being rebuilt this month with money donated by the community. Two organizations feed the homeless, and three have applied for grants to provide permanent shelters.
Late last month, an organization that was formed a year ago for the purpose of alleviating homelessness in the Rio Hondo area applied for a grant to open a family shelter at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk. Representatives of St. Matthias Church and the Whittier Area Ecumenical Council are also searching for money and a site for a permanent shelter.
Like homeless populations everywhere, Whittier's is difficult to count, difficult to characterize and difficult to serve.
The homeless themselves say they number about 100 in Whittier. Social service providers do not dispute the estimate. Members of the county Department of Mental Health Homeless Outreach Team, which is based in Santa Fe Springs, say that since May 1, they have counseled at least 120 homeless mentally ill in Whittier, Santa Fe Springs, Los Nietos, La Mirada and Pico Rivera. Team member Elaine Allen calls the 120 "the tip of the iceberg."
Food Bags Distributed
Volunteers at Whittier's Ecumenical Food Center say they distribute up to 50 bags of food a day to homeless people. Jean Wick, who distributes food bags for the center, estimates that about a third of the recipients have obvious physical or mental disabilities. Volunteers for the St. Matthias soup hour say they feed hot meals to 55 people a day, not all of them homeless.
Longtime Whittier resident Walt Dinger has mounted a private effort to document the plight of local homeless people. Dinger has videotaped interviews with dozens of them, gathering information about their physical needs and living conditions. His goal, he says is to provide skeptical city fathers with evidence that they have a problem with homelessness.
Local organizations divide their efforts to help the homeless into two categories: "Band-Aids," which provide food and shelter for a night or two; and long-term help, which would give food and shelter until people can provide for themselves.