Koreatown Isn’t Saying No to Shelters for the Homeless, It’s Saying No to Herb Wesson

PERSPECTIVE--Residents of Koreatown are outraged over Councilmember Herb Wesson's insistence on creating a temporary homeless shelter on a City-owned parking lot on Vermont near Wilshire.  To be clear, the community is not saying they refuse to accept a homeless shelter in Koreatown.

  The question is whether this site (photo above)is appropriate, given its close proximity to a number of schools.  The community is also angry that the decision was made with absolutely no opportunity for residents to weigh in.  Wesson did not meet with local groups or leaders in advance of announcing the creation of the shelter. 

No one can argue the fact that LA is in the middle of a homeless crisis, and that action needs to be taken.  But let's contrast Wesson's approach with that of Councilmember Paul Krekorian whose district includes Studio City, Sun Valley, Valley Village, and Van Nuys.  Krekorian has introduced a motion to study eight City-owned properties in his district to find out how they could be used to alleviate the homeless crisis. He has also assured his constituents that he won't make any decisions without public input. 

If the City’s plan for addressing homelessness is going to be successful, the public needs to be on board with the program.  The only way that’s going to happen is if our elected officials engage with communities in good faith.  Krekorian understands that.  Apparently Wesson doesn't. 

Because one of the chief concerns about the proposed shelter is its proximity to student populations, I wanted to see for myself how close it would be to local schools, so I went to Koreatown to take a look.  I walked the distance from the shelter site to the Young Oak Kim Academy (or YOKA, a middle school), roughly one block north and one block east.  It took less than four minutes.  Just across Sixth St. from YOKA is the New Covenant Academy (K-12). And walking west from the proposed shelter site, it's just about four blocks to the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, a campus that houses multiple learning institutions.  So there are a number of schools within a radius of about 1,500 feet of the City-owned lot where the Councilmember wants to put a shelter. 

It's important to emphasize that the majority of homeless people do not present a threat to the community. Sadly, many conscientious, hardworking people have been pushed into homelessness in recent years, unable to afford spiralling housing prices.  But it's also a fact that a percentage of the homeless population is struggling with substance abuse and mental illness.  Some have been convicted of violent crimes.  While the students at these Koreatown campusses have little to fear from most members of the area's homeless population, it's the minority who may represent a threat that parents are worried about.  

And it's also important to put Wesson's action in context here.  Residents of Koreatown feel they've been getting disrespected by City Hall for years. Many Korean-Americans who were alive during the 1992 civil disturbances still talk about how they felt abandoned by City Hall both during and after the violence.  And 20 years later many were furious when the process of redrawing council districts in 2012 ended with Koreatown chopped in pieces.  One of the most recent insults was Mayor Eric Garcetti's rescue of a project proposed for Koreatown that his own Planning Commissioners had rejected.  In spite of broad community opposition, Garcetti and Wesson got the City Council to approve the 27-story tower, forcing residents to go to court to stop it. Earlier this year a judge did just that, saying that the environmental review was inadequate, and asking why the City failed to consult with the LAPD and LAFD about possible impacts. 

It's interesting that Garcetti and Wesson are suddenly so anxious to address the homeless crisis, when for years the policies they approved just pushed the homeless from street to street while the City confiscated their belongings.  Add to that their tireless promotion of unchecked development, which has led to waves of gentrification and displacement.  The homeless population in the City of LA has risen substantially since Garcetti was elected.  How much you want to bet we'll see another increase when the results of the 2018 count are released? 

We need to find a solution to the homeless crisis.  But we need to do it by working together.  Other Councilmembers are reaching out to the community to get their input.  

Why can't Herb Wesson do the same?


(Casey Maddren is President of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA), a grass roots group advocating for better planning and a CityWatch contributor.)