How the Golden Motel could portend trouble for homeless strategy

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It's nearing 11a.m. at the Golden Motel — check-out time — and half a dozen doors are open to the courtyard. Men, women, and children scurry through the short walkway to the parking lot carrying stuffed animals, pillows, and trash bags full of clothes.

"You have to move every twenty-eight days," explained Lyrissa Balam, who's holed up with two toddlers in a first floor room, the air conditioner blasting against the unseasonably hot morning. 

Balam, who grew up in nearby El Monte, has been shuffling between this motel and another in Azusa for about a year with her husband and four kids. Her husband, she said, works as a carpenter. The family pays about $1,100 a month to stay in hotels. But they have bad credit and can't find a rental. 

"The moving's tough," she said. "Kids are like, 'do we have to move again?'"

Institutions like the Golden Motel are scattered across Los Angeles, serving as housing of last resort for a range of people, from families with bad credit, to disabled seniors, to drug-addicted men and women who can scrape up enough cash to stay off the streets. 

"We don't get the opportunity to move up," Balam said. 

That's supposed to change soon. On Tuesday the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on a plan for spending hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years on getting people off the streets, and out of homeless shelters and motels like this one. The money's coming from Measure H, a voter-approved sales tax that kicks in Oct. 1. 

The tax is expected to help pay for everything from new homeless shelters with on-site services, to prevention programs, to new apartment buildings to house formerly homeless.

The effort is guided by a new commitment to coordination across agencies, better quality of services, and a reliance on the type of data that would tell the county who needs what type of help — from a family that needs help with credit or a security deposit, to a disabled senior who needs a permanently subsidized home. 

The City of L.A., too, is investing $1.2 billion over the next decade in developing housing for currently homeless and low-income people. And the state is pouring millions of dollars into housing for people with serious mental illnesses. 

But as these efforts ramp up, there are questions about where all this housing and services will go. And all eyes, at the moment, are on the Golden Motel, which is at the center of a fight about allowing homeless services into the neighborhood. 

Mercy Housing, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, has a bid in to buy the motel and with the help of public funds, convert it into housing for formerly homeless veterans and single men and women. The hotel's owners are on board, and Mercy says it has the money it needs for conversion.

The problem: massive opposition from the motel's neighbors.

A sampling of comments from a recent city council meeting in Temple City, which borders the project, captures the gist of the opposition:

"Please don’t let it happen here; we can donate either money or food in a different city, but not Temple City," said one woman, who added she feared for her children should the development go forward. 

"It's not going to end and there will be a fight," promised another woman. "What you see here is just the beginning."

Supporters of the project also showed up.

"The San Gabriel Valley is severely lacking the capacity to respond to the needs of its own poor and homeless," said one man.

A woman who lives nearby said she would be happy to see the eyesore of a motel replaced with clean, quiet apartments for the poor.

This debate is not unique to the Temple City area. Similar fights are taking place around proposed developments in Venice and Boyle Heights. Other homeless services — from storage facilities for homeless people's belongings that could help keep the streets cleaner, to emergency shelters — are also having trouble finding homes because neighborhoods don't want them.

Because the motel is on county land, the city council does not have to approve the proposed development. That will fall to the Regional Planning Commission of L.A. County  and if appealed, to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. 

Phil Ansell, head of the county's homeless initiative, said neighbor reluctance is a crucial issue as capital projects like housing and shelters roll out.

"The siting of permanent supportive housing and crisis housing for families and adults is a very important part of the county's overall effort to combat homelessness," he said. 

The county's hired a consulting firm to figure out a public relations strategy for selling neighbors on the expected wave of new developments. Mercy Housing, meanwhile, is on their own awareness campaign. 

"We do have some word to do to make the connection between supporting services and housing in the abstract and then what does that mean when you actually have to produce units," said Ed Holder, Mercy Housing's regional vice president of housing development.

At a nearby development to house formerly homeless veterans that Mercy constructed in El Monte, it's quiet. 

Clifton, one of the residents, is in his studio apartment, watching Law & Order. 

"I was homeless for 25 years, so I want to watch TV," he said, laughing. "The programs, I've never even seen them, then I find out they've been on for 15 years!"

Clifton, an Army vet, spends most of his time sleeping and watching TV, exhausted, he said, from decades in a tent. 

Holder has invited neighbors of the Golden Motel out to meet residents like Clifton and tour the El Monte property. About a dozen people have taken him up on it, he said. 

"We need to make sure people understand the before and after," Holder said. 

As indoor residents of Los Angeles have seen the homeless population expand to a whopping 58,000 on any given night, their experiences have primed them to look at homelessness in a particular way, Holder said. 

For Marta Jensen, who lives around the corner from the place, the Golden Motel is synonymous with homelessness. 

"I do see, already the community changing," she said. "People are coming from the motel, shooting up in the bathrooms, coming out violent, collapsing in the stores."

Homeless housing is needed, she said, just not here. 

Correction: This piece originally named the wrong county commission responsible for approving the project. We regret the error. 

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