In L.A.’s Koreatown, Homeless Rift Has Historic Roots

3 min
A small group of counterdemonstrators showed their support for the proposed homeless shelter.  (Avishay Artsy/KCRW)

The city of Los Angeles has been addressing the homelessness crisis by approving new shelters and turning old motels into temporary shelters. It appears to be having modest success. This year’s homeless count showed a 3 percent decline in the homeless population.

To get the homeless off the streets more quickly, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has launched a $20 million campaign called “A Bridge Home” to put new shelters in each of the 15 council districts. The first would be placed in a city-owned parking lot in Koreatown. But resistance there has taken the form of demonstrations, marches and a petition that has received thousands of signatures.

Jake Jeong, an attorney and community leader in Koreatown, leads the crowd in a call and response demanding a public hearing on the proposed temporary homeless shelter at 7th and Vermont.
Jake Jeong, an attorney and community leader in Koreatown, leads the crowd in a call and response demanding a public hearing on the proposed temporary homeless shelter at Seventh and Vermont. (Avishay Artsy/KCRW)

Officials say this site was selected based on data of homeless encampments in Koreatown. They estimate there are about 400 homeless people living in the neighborhood. The facility will have 65 beds and will be open for a maximum of three years.

The Los Angeles City Council was expected to vote Friday on the emergency shelter without a public hearing. But after hearing demands from upset community members, Council President Herb Wesson agreed to restart the process.

Wesson has agreed to look at least one alternative site for the Koreatown shelter, in addition to the disputed site. In a written statement released Thursday morning, Wesson said he would review different sites and hold community meetings in Koreatown before the City Council takes final action on a temporary housing facility.

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“What’s the justification for not having [a] public hearing? We want to help. We want to be part of this decision-making procedure. That’s all we want,” said Jake Jeong, an attorney and Koreatown community leader, before Wesson changed his approach.

The proposed shelter is bringing up some deep-seated anxieties within the Korean-American community that the city is not listening to their concerns.

“Maybe people think we are selfish [because] we [are] against the homeless shelter. We are not selfish. We’re just asking, they have to respect us, OK? We work hard, we pay taxes and they are not hearing us. They are not respecting us. That’s not fair,” said one protester, Karen Lee.

“After 1992 when this community was burned to the ground, it was built up by the blood, sweat and tears of Korean Americans. And it’s just finally been revitalized and has actually been improving for the past couple of decades,” said protester Emmanuel Han.
“After 1992 when this community was burned to the ground, it was built up by the blood, sweat and tears of Korean-Americans. And it’s just finally been revitalized and has actually been improving for the past couple of decades,” protester Emmanuel Han said. (Avishay Artsy/KCRW)

Residents also expressed concerns about homeless people bringing drugs and crime to the area. Officials counter that the housing will have 24/7 police presence.

But there’s another issue. There are about five schools within a mile of the proposed shelter.

One protester, Myung Jin, wore a shirt with the logo from her son’s school, just a short walk away. Her son is 13 and autistic, and she worries for his safety.

There’s also a belief among Korean-Americans that homelessness is not their community’s problem.

According to L.A. homeless statistics, Los Angeles County is 14 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, but that group makes up just 1 percent of the homeless population. No other group -- white, black or Latino -- can compare with that ratio.

Joon Bang, head of the Korean American Coalition of Los Angeles, says a growing number of Korean-American seniors are experiencing homelessness. They are often hidden, sleeping in church pews or at 24-hour spas.

Jason Yeo and Angela Joo both say that homeless services and housing should be concentrated in downtown LA, rather than in neighborhoods like Koreatown.
Jason Yeo and Angela Joo both say that homeless services and housing should be concentrated in downtown L.A., rather than in neighborhoods like Koreatown. (Avishay Artsy/KCRW)

Raymond Kim, who runs the Facebook page that opposes the Koreatown shelter, raised the issue of support structures created by families and friends.

“Everyone in Koreatown has a friend or a family that’s been in terrible condition," Kim said. "They’ve been down on their luck and they’ve housed them. I’ve done that. Everybody here has housed a family member or a friend. We put in our fair share of taking care of people. There would be way more homeless if we didn’t take care of our friends and our family."

At a recent protest, some residents also held signs reading “No hearing, no tent.” There is some concern that the tent itself is a problem, while a permanent structure would blend into the neighborhood better.

But it’s not clear what the temporary facility will look like. One rendering on the website for Wesson shows a big tent. Garcetti’s campaign includes different kinds of emergency shelters, including tents, trailers, storage units and safe parking facilities.

Johnny Lee is a restaurant owner in Koreatown and thinks a homeless shelter will improve the neighborhood.
Johnny Lee is a restaurant owner in Koreatown and thinks a homeless shelter will improve the neighborhood. (Avishay Artsy/KCRW)

There are some Koreatown residents who support the idea of installing a temporary homeless shelter. One of them, Johnny Lee, is a restaurant owner in Koreatown and held a sign at Saturday’s rally that read “Koreatown Choose Love.”

“We’ve never had so many homeless encampments in Koreatown that I’ve known. I’ve never seen so many before. And I’d love to see something be done about that,” Lee said. “I know a lot of business owners in Koreatown want to see something done about that, too. They don’t want their storefronts to look unattractive because people can’t find restrooms to use and they won’t allow them to use [their] restrooms. So what will they do, right?”

Activists say several lawsuits are being filed. In Venice, two community groups are suing the city of Los Angeles over a pair of new laws that are meant to make it easier to shelter homeless people.

Koreatown resident Andrew Cohen observed the rally, and said he expects to see more of these kinds of protests.

“I saw the protests against the homeless shelters in Irvine, and that was disgusting. And I was like, at least we don’t deal with that in L.A. And then, lo and behold, here we are,” Cohen said.

“I understand that it’s scary and the housing crisis here is getting worse and worse. But my hope is that people are going to see some compassion for the folks who find themselves homeless in this city.”

There is also a political deadline here. Besides the Olympic Games coming to L.A. in 2028, Garcetti is mulling a run for president, with recent visits to Iowa and New Hampshire, and solving homelessness is going to be his biggest challenge. Wesson has been talked about as a potential mayoral candidate. That has created a political timetable for building homeless shelters in Koreatown and elsewhere in the city.

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