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LA Mayor: 'I understand fear' over Koreatown homeless shelter plan

A rendering of the proposed Koreatown emergency homeless shelter from Councilman Herb Wesson's website.
A rendering of the proposed Koreatown emergency homeless shelter from Councilman Herb Wesson's website.
Courtesy of Councilman Herb Wesson

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Facing angry opposition to the city's plan to build a temporary homeless shelter in Koreatown, two of Los Angeles’ most powerful politicians staged a rally Friday to show they have no intention of backing down. 

"The status quo cannot stay," Mayor Eric Garcetti told a crowd of about 150 people on the south lawn of city hall. "It is inhumane to keep our brothers and sisters living on the sidewalks of this city."

Garcetti introduced his plan to build an emergency shelter in each of the 15 city council districts last month and committed $20 million to do it. Council President Herb Wesson, who joined Garcetti at Friday's rally, was the first to select a site.

He chose a city-owned parcel at Vermont and 7th– about one block from the Wilshire-Vermont subway station and in the midst of the one of the city's fastest growing areas. Private developers have 50 major projects planned for Koreatown, according to Curbed LA.

Within a week of Wesson and Garcetti announcing the Koreatown shelter, residents called foul. People worried about crime and trash, as well as the potential effect on property values. Some criticized Wesson's process for selecting the site.

Even some supporters of the shelter have voiced concerns about the process. "The conversation with stakeholders in Koreatown was not what it should have been," acknowledged the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance's Alexandra Suh, who also spoke at the rally.  

While many Koreatown community leaders are well aware of the homeless crisis and supportive of shelters, "the way the conversation has gone down or not gone down at all has made it hard to come together," she said.

"There has been disingenuousness on all sides," Suh told the crowd, which included homeless service providers, activists and union members.

In his comments, Wesson called on the public to support homeless people while acknowledging that people often need to be convinced when it comes to building shelters in their neighborhood. 

"We have a big task in front of us," he said, adding, "but I’m sure that we can do it."

A spokeswoman for Wesson said he's "strongly committed" to the proposed site, that it would hold no more than 100 people and it would be open no more than three years. 

As he left the rally, the council president faced tough questions from Korean-language media.

"Members of the Korean community, members of the Hispanic community – they just wanted to talk to you," said one.

Wesson said he’s talked to lot of people and is willing to talk to more, "but it’s just impossible to talk to everyone."  He noted the council's homelessness and poverty committee has scheduled a hearing on the proposal for next week.

Garcetti escaped similar scrutiny, but he also addressed the opposition to the shelter. 

"I understand fear," he said. "And we will confront it. We will not dismiss it."

The mayor added, "but we know the solution," saying, "our choice is not whether we bring people to our neighborhoods. It's whether we take care of people already in our neighborhoods."

Councilman Mike Bonin also attended Friday's rally. He said he supports the emergency shelter plan but is bracing for a backlash. 

"I know one truth from some of the scars on my back," he said. "There will be objections, there will be protests and there will be lawsuits." 

Bonin said he's tried to get more services and shelters for the Venice area, which he represents. Venice has one of the region's largest homeless populations. 

The Urban Land Institute says L.A. needs to build 60 shelters to address the growing homelessness crisis. The latest count found an estimated 58,000 homeless people in the county, a surge of 75 percent over the past six years.