"There are people who shoot up and there are people who are mentally ill," said Koreatown activist and attorney Grace Yoo. "How do we ensure the safety for the homeless and the people nearby?"
We were having coffee in the Koreatown Galleria, the big mall at Western Avenue and Olympic Boulevard, in an area torn by a dispute over a proposal to build a temporary shelter for the homeless on a city parking lot near Seventh Street and South Vermont Avenue, also in the heart of Koreatown.
Yoo, who ran unsuccessfully against City Council President Herb Wesson in the area in the last election, is a leader of the opposition to the temporary housing, which is backed by Wesson and Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Garcetti has a lot riding on this project. Construction of such temporary housing in each of the 15 City Council districts is at the heart of his policy to find a place for the homeless, who now live in tents on sidewalks, parks and under freeways.
Without progress on the homeless issue, voters will undoubtedly be angry after voting for a $1.2 billion Los Angeles bond measure to build housing for the homeless and a county sales tax increase that will raise $355 million for mental health and substance abuse rehabilitation and other services. Failure to make substantial progress in solving Los Angeles' most pressing problem would hurt Garcetti as he contemplates running for president.
In addition, Garcetti is dealing with ethnic tensions in a Koreatown still feeling marginalized after the 1992 riot. Many residents were convinced the city stood by while Korean-owned businesses were destroyed. They also charge that the area has been neglected by city service providers and pushed around politically before and after the riot. Garcetti's skill in handling ethnic relations in his multi-ethnic city is something else that will be scrutinized in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Yoo had emailed to say she wanted to get together with me to discuss her feelings, and the feelings of others, that "when it comes to the Korean-American community, we don't get a fair shake."
The proposed facility already approved by a council committee and awaiting approval by the full council, would house about 100 of a Koreatown homeless population estimated by authorities as around 400. Early drawings show a structure looking like a big tent. "It looks like a huge igloo," said Woo. Such housing, with a life span of three years, will serve as temporary housing, also providing rehabilitation services, for homeless people while they await apartments in affordable housing projects, most of which have not been built.
Yoo and her anti-project allies have two main objections: The temporary housing is in the wrong place, too near schools, businesses and residences. And she maintains neither Wesson nor Garcetti has reached out enough to the community to answer a number of questions, despite meetings with Koreatown leaders. Both the mayor and the council president strongly disagree, saying they have had a number of community meetings.
There are several nitty gritty questions about running such a facility: Who is going to build it? Who is going to run the place once built? How will the occupants be selected? Who will cook, clean, maintain utilities, mediate disputes, coordinate security with LAPD and substance addiction and mental health treatment?
The answer to such questions will determine the success of Garcetti's efforts. In his Executive Directive 25, the mayor is aiming to cut through the government bureaucracy. He ordered departments to appoint a project manager for emergency homeless housing, speed up the ponderous approval process and require that construction be completed in 90 days.
More than that, Garcetti will have to sit down again--and again--with residents such as Grace Yoo, tell them exactly what's going on and convince them the city has their back--not only in Koreatown but in other areas where emergency homeless shelters will be built. It's a big challenge and the next few months will show whether or not he is up to it.