WHITTIER — Jeff and his fiancee bought a new mobile home earlier this year and saw it destroyed in the Oct. 1 earthquake. Jeff sat at a table, sipping soup with Joe, who has had some drinking problems and lived on the streets for several years.
Across the room was a family of six, stretched out on foam mats as protection from the cold cement floor, their belongings beside them stuffed in white plastic grocery bags. Scattered along the perimeter of the room were about 30 men, women and children, some asleep on the floor, some sitting alone in folding chairs, others seated at an oblong table as they debated the worth of the recent Superpower summit.
Jeff, 32, who declined to give his last name, lived in motels for about a month after the earthquake. He said he prefers the shelter system to shifting from motel to motel.
"At least in here, you're not looked down on as a peon," he said. "It took a lot of swallowing of pride to come down to this."
"This" was accepting the basement of Whittier Presbyterian Church as his home for the next few days. On Dec. 23, the shelter will move to First Friends Church, and 10 days later, to St. Matthias Episcopal Church, and to First Christian Church after that.
Whittier's religious community, gently prodded by homeless activist Bea Comini, has set up a rotating system for sheltering the homeless during the cold nights of winter. The churches open the doors of their basements and recreation facilities about 9 p.m., with hot soup and drinks ready. The homeless leave by 7 a.m.
The service began last year on a smaller scale, but became crucial this year after the Oct. 1 earthquake destroyed most of the Salvation Army's shelter. And this month, the Salvation Army closed its men's shelter, which had housed about 15 a night, because the space was needed to prepare Christmas baskets.
The earthquake also jeopardized the church shelter system, Comini said, because many churches suffered damage and stopped participating until repairs could be made. Meanwhile, the number of homeless people using the Whittier shelters is on the rise, she said, increasing from about 20 last year to as many as 38 this year.
Through cooperation from the private Whittier Area Ecumenical Council, the church system has been able to accommodate the homeless. But Comini is concerned that City Hall is ignoring the problem.
"It would be nice if we had a place to go, if the city could rent a place and the
churches be responsible for staffing," said Comini, who has spoken about the homeless problem at several City Council meetings. "This business of going from church to church is a hassle."
Manny Ocampo, Whittier's director of human services, said the problem with that idea is identifying a place for the shelter.
"Whittier is not facility-rich," he said, adding that there are also difficulties with insurance and staffing.
Instead, the city's policy is to help the homeless indirectly through grants to the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Ecumenical Food Center, he said. Those grants totaled more than $50,000 last year.
"A community's usual response is to look to their own agencies, and I think they're saying, 'We're not winning the war here,' " Ocampo said. "If (the homeless problem) was once underestimated, I don't think it's that way anymore."
Whittier also does not contract with Los Angeles County to provide motel vouchers for the homeless during extreme weather, as some cities do. Ocampo said grants to the Salvation Army are intended to provide that service.
Though social service workers may disagree about the best way of providing for the homeless, there is little dispute that the problem is compounded by a lack of low-income housing in Whittier.
"If low-cost housing was unavailable before the earthquake, now it's completely impossible," Comini said. "Redevelopment has destroyed our only rooming houses."
Carol Hassler of the Whittier Salvation Army said, "The gap between the rent and minimum wage is so vast now that the person who is making the minimum can't afford rent. Those people are just finding themselves more and more stranded and desperate."
Ocampo agreed that Whittier's low-income housing is minimal, but said there may be some incorporated into the post-earthquake redesign of the Uptown Village business district. The Chateau Whittier senior citizen housing project also will include a low-income section, he said.
Another often mentioned long-term solution is the Rio Hondo Temporary Home in Norwalk, scheduled to open in January as a shelter and referral service for homeless families. Whittier has contributed $17,000 to the project and officials hope it will lessen the burden of local shelter providers.
Although Comini supports the shelter, she points out that it is intended to help only one segment of the homeless community.