The Los Angeles City Council backed a plan Friday to continue studying the possibility of a contested Koreatown temporary homeless shelter on Vermont Avenue, but to also hold more community meetings on the topic and study an alternative site, a move that comes after nearly two months of harsh opposition to the shelter among some residents.
The council’s 12-0 vote approved an amended motion introduced by Council President Herb Wesson, who insisted it was not a “retreat” or a “slowing down” of the process, although an earlier statement he issued said the amendment was meant to “restart the process” on the shelter.
The site was the first identified to be part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s new program to install temporary or “bridge” homeless shelters in each city, with the mayor and Wesson holding a news conference there on May 2 to officially launch the entire “A Bridge Home” program — which Garcetti had made a focal point of his State of the City address in April. The controversy surrounding the Koreatown shelter has been a public setback for the program, but Wesson delivered a passionate and boisterous speech before the vote where he called for the city to keep moving forward on trying to solve the homeless problem.
“We cannot lose this battle. This is a fight for humanity,” Wesson said as he stood and sometimes yelled near the top of his lungs in order to be heard over the raucous audience.
Wesson also pointed out that a new site he introduced for consideration as a potential second but separate shelter at 1819 S. Western Ave. was the parking lot of his district office.
“I will work and live with people who have lived on the street. If it is feasible, I am going to bring them to my parking lot because I don’t want anybody to ever suggest that I wouldn’t make sacrifices that I’m asking them to make,” Wesson yelled. “I am asking for people of this city to say we are sick and we are tired of people sleeping on the streets.”
Opponents and supporters of the shelter packed the council chambers for the meeting, with each side given 25 minutes to speak while several hundred people in the crowd cheered or jeered. Although Wesson earlier this week had announced his intention to consider other sites and hold more meetings, many of the same criticisms were repeated by opponents, including that not enough outreach was done in advance and the site is too close to schools and key businesses.
In a statement issued earlier this week and in his amended motion, Wesson said he is “committed to holding a review of different sites and community workshops/meetings/gatherings in Koreatown during the summer prior to the City Council taking final action on a temporary housing facility.”
Wesson said he would consider privately owned lots at 923-937 S. Kenmore Ave. as a shelter site. He also said he would evaluate the city-owned parking lot at his district office to determine if that property is suitable for development as a second — and separate — crisis-and-bridge housing facility, situated outside of Koreatown in Harvard Heights. Safe parking locations for homeless people who sleep in their cars will also be studied in the southern part of the district.
The amended motion also creates a Council District 10 Commission on Koreatown Homelessness to be formed to offer recommendations on the future long-term use of 682 S. Vermont Ave., which may include senior affordable/supportive housing.
Despite the opposition, Wesson and Garcetti argued the Koreatown neighborhood has the highest concentration of unsheltered homeless in Wesson’s 10th Council District and that the site was the best option in the area because the city already owned the lot. They also pointed out that many homeless people are already sleeping on the street in the immediate area, and the Bridge Home program aims to cycle them off the street and into permanent shelters while also increasing the cleanups of sidewalk encampments in the neighborhood.
Garcetti was asked about the proposed shelter during a news conference last week and he continued to express support for it. His comments came before Wesson announced his intention to slow down the process on the site.
“It’s a site that makes so much sense. It really does,” Garcetti said. “We control it. It’s close to transit and services. It’s in an area where we have tents all around within a block or two. So it helps us deal with the situation. If we walk away from that site, those tents still stay at Sixth and Vermont. Those tents are still there in front of a school.”
He added, “I’ll stay open-eared until the very end. If somebody said there’s an even bigger or better site or something like that, but I don’t want to lose any momentum.”
During a May 24 news conference he called in response to a large protest against the shelter that had shut down Wilshire Boulevard, Wesson said he planned to push forward with the shelter despite any perceived threats to his political future. Wesson’s term is up in 2020 and he cannot run again due to term limits.
“A few days ago I met with one of the opposition leaders who looked me in my face and he said, `Why don’t you think about your future?”’ Wesson said. “I’m not worried about my future. I’ve been blessed. I have a good life. We are fighting for the future of the mother of two that is going to sleep in a doorway or sleep in her car with one eye open so she can keep an eye on her children and make sure that she’s not robbed or raped or worse.”
Garcetti and the City Council have dedicated $20 million for the Bridge Home program in the upcoming fiscal year, and the mayor also said tens of millions more could be available now that the state is providing the city with $85 million in budget surplus money for homeless programs. In particular, Garcetti said that an additional $20 million could be dedicated just for Skid Row, where more that 2,000 homeless people are centered, which is a dollar estimate City Councilman Jose Huizar has said is needed for the neighborhood.
The Bridge Home program would install shelters in the from of trailers or large tents, with 24-hour security and on-site support workers who would offer services and attempt to transition people into permanent supportive housing or drug treatment programs. Each shelter would be designed to hold no more than 100 people, with a goal of housing at least 1,500 by the end of the fiscal year. But the Skid Row plans could push the number of people in the shelters to a much higher degree, although no specific plans in the area have been finalized.
Over the last few years, the number of unsheltered persons experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles increased, rising from an estimated 17,687 in 2015 to 25,237 in 2017 before declining 8 percent in 2018 to 23,114. The total number of homeless, including sheltered and unsheltered individuals, also fell 5 percent in the city this year to 31,516.