Video Courtesy of Grace Lee

A Community Besieged?

How a Proposed Homeless Shelter Aggravated Tensions in L.A.'s Koreatown

In a community as vibrant as Los Angeles' Koreatown, the parking lot at 682 S. Vermont Ave. seems unremarkable, a small piece of asphalt easily overlooked by passersby on their way to the bustling Metro stop or to one of the sweet-smelling eateries nearby. Nestled in one of LA's most celebrated ethnic enclaves–and home to the largest Korean community outside of Korea itself–the parking lot quietly caters to a diverse populous.

How can one parking lot stir up so much controversy?

Yet, this parking area sparked angry demonstrations over the past few months, drawing hundreds of community members to the streets and City Hall, chanting and wielding handmade 'Save K-Town' signs.

Ronald Kim, an attorney and long-time resident of the area, has repeatedly expressed outrage over this lot, claiming it represents "a larger pattern of not only official neglect, but actually official abuse" by city of Los Angeles' officials. Grace Yoo, a Koreatown activist and fellow attorney, echoes Kim's indignation, suggesting that the anger surrounding this lot could lead to a recall of District 10 City Councilman Herb Wesson.

As the blistering mid-afternoon sun sinks behind a concrete horizon of multi-level buildings, the lot slowly empties, the steady hum of conversation and blaring traffic horns diminishes, and the scene turns tranquil. It's difficult to imagine that this commonplace site has been the object of furious conflict festering within the Koreatown community, which begs the question: How can one parking lot stir up so much controversy?

The straightforward answer is that community members of Koreatown are angry about Councilman Wesson's plan to build a temporary homeless shelter, known as "A Bridge Home," in the South Vermont Avenue parking lot. This emergency housing in Koreatown would be part of a larger initiative launched by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to temporarily house unsheltered Angelenos.

The Debate

The proposal of a temporary homeless shelter has polarized the citizens of Koreatown.

Though the shelter is now proposed for a new site a few blocks away, the primary argument that emerged from opposition groups remains. Their main complaint: Inadequate public outreach from city officials. The shelter itself is not so much the problem, but rather the process by which it was unveiled.

"No one was alerted before the press conference," says Yoo. "The mayor and Wesson and a bunch of community leaders came in, and Wesson and Garcetti are like, 'We're going to build the first 'A Bridge Home' project and K-Town is going to get the first one.' And one of the reporters asked if there would be public hearings, and Wesson's response was no, no, no."

Lingering feelings of resentment surrounding the shelter among K-Town residents of "Why here, why us?" exposed a larger concern within Koreatown: lack of effective communication between city and community.

These communication gaps are critical, yet the problem is more complicated. After struggling for decades to be recognized, Korean Americans carved out a space of their own in the sprawling city of Los Angeles, creating a place for themselves, their culture, and their language in America. Many Korean Americans see Koreatown as their own home-away-from-home.

But the neighborhood's development boom is in full swing. More than 50 projects are currently under construction in Koreatown-mainly luxury apartment complexes- and the existing nature of the neighborhood is likely to change.

"One of the reporters asked if there would be public hearings, and Wesson's response was no, no, no."
– Grace Yoo, attorney and community activist

Indicative of this is the area around 682 S. Vermont, the original site for the shelter. Though nearly imperceptible at street level, next to the lot stands a luxury apartment complex, complete with a shimmering rooftop pool, fully equipped fitness center, and its own swanky club. Called The Vermont apartments, its website boasts a location unprecedented in "urban energy," "sky-high decadence," and "unparalleled views." It's hard to envision that '#thevermontlife' could include a homeless shelter next door.

The proposed homeless shelter intensified feelings that K-Town is in danger of being unrecognizably transformed, and that its current residents have no control or say in it.

And though Kim maintains that, "the particular flavor of Koreatown comes from the generations of immigrants from Korea and their children," the community continues to rapidly diversify and change. Koreatown is largely an immigrant community: two of every three residents were born abroad. While Koreatown boasts the largest concentration of Koreans in the region, they are a minority: Latinos make up the majority of Koreatown's demographic. With origins in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and other Latin American nations, Latinos constitute over 50 percent of the population, according to a report by the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA).

More so, with growing ethnic groups like the Bangladeshis staking their claim within Koreatown, issues like the proposed temporary homeless shelter ignited racial friction and hostilities for some, stirring up questions about whose voices carry the greatest weight. Whose Koreatown is it?

Slowly and surely, Korean Americans have felt the identity they fostered being chipped away as forces encroach upon their proud, tight-knit community. With residents feeling angry over the proposed homeless shelter, ignored by the city, and fearful of losing K-Town's character and distinguished place in LA's fabric, profound conflict ensued.

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To Shelter or Not to Shelter: Outlining the Debate

The lot at 682 S. Vermont Ave. was recently adorned with a large banner that reads "Protect our Schools and Local Businesses; Unite and SAY NO to Homeless Shelter Here!" The banner, which calls for a unification of the K-Town community, is symbolic of the divide that has developed within the past few months over Councilman Wesson's proposed temporary homeless shelter.

Those combatting the shelter being placed here include residents, business owners, and Korean-language media outlets. Though this site is no longer under consideration, the main debate is ongoing, as it is not about the homeless shelter itself or where it will be put; rather, Wesson's proposal incited an uproar because many community members found a lack of transparency and communication between the councilman and the community.

Ronald Kim and Grace Yoo, two leaders of the opposition, said most of the K-Town community was unaware of this shelter development and were not sufficiently consulted in the decision-making.

"Herb Wesson clearly demonstrated by his conduct that he has not only no respect for our community, but frankly a significant level of contempt. He did not consult with our community at all before selecting this location," says Kim.

Voices of the Community

Another point of contention has been the lack of plans provided for who and what the shelter will offer; or at least, a lack of sharing those plans with the community. "In terms of the homeless shelter itself, to this day [Wesson] cannot give us the details on what the emergency shelter would entail," Kim says.

Yoo expressed a possible explanation for the lack of public outreach: "Koreatown has a very high population of immigrants. The language barriers and the non-English speakers will keep themselves more quiet."

"They're not ready to speak out in broken English," she says. "It's uncomfortable. Therefore, the city pays less attention."

On the city's lack of communication, Yoo agreed with Kim. "Wesson kept having to change his story, which infuriated this community because we've been lied to so often."

James An, business owner and organizer of KeepKoreatown.

Joon Bang, the executive director of the Korean American Coalition, takes a more neutral stance on the shelter, but faults the city for fostering ill will with the community. "When you sidestep all that [dialogue with the city] and then go straight toward, 'this is exactly what we are going to do whether you like it or not' it's not going to go along within any community."

Despite the resistance, some are fighting to have a shelter within the community. Among those leading the support for the shelter are the Korean Resource Center of Los Angeles (KRCLA), the group 'Shelter for All K-Town," and the Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA).

"The 'bridge housing' should definitely be there," says Nara Kim, the campaign coordinator of the KRCLA. "All the rhetoric around it was they don't deserve to be here or they're all drug addicts," she explains. "But we voted on all these homeless initiatives to actually help them, and this is an actual tangible step to do that, and so I completely support it."

Jane Nguyen, one of the leaders of "Shelter for All Koreatown," said more shelters and homeless programs are needed. "It didn't really make sense to me that anyone would protest against that, and I thought that a lot of the reasons that they were bringing up to oppose it were just based on fear."

Nguyen and her group provide outreach to homeless members of the K-Town community. "There needs to be more outrage, more moral outrage, against the suffering that's happening every day right outside our doorsteps," she says.

James An, a Koreatown restaurant owner, understands why business owners may be concerned that the shelter could hurt business, but maintains his support of the project.

"There's a part of me that says I wish there was a little more community input with the process," says An, "but another part of me that says it would be nice if Koreans can be the model community and say it's been put in our court, let's just do the best that we can and set an example to other communities to kind of follow suit."

Ironically, often absent from this conversation about placing a homeless shelter in Koreatown are those who are actually homeless.

Joseph Reyes, a homeless member of the Koreatown community.

"I've been homeless for over 10 years," says Mario Dean, a homeless veteran living in K-Town. "I don't want to live in a shelter because I don't want to put up with the rules. Everybody's reasons could be different, my reason is simple: I don't want to put up with the rules."

Of other homeless living in the shelter, Dean adds, "Some people like to be homeless, you can't just throw somebody into a building and expect them to know everything they need to do. They haven't had that structure in a long time."

Erica Steeves, however, says even though she spends most of her time on Skid Row, she would live in this housing if given the chance. "Every area needs a homeless shelter," she says. "They don't want us littering the streets, right? So, the only other option would be to provide temporary housing."

After living in Koreatown for many years, Joseph 'Joe' Reyes was evicted from his home, and now lives on the streets. When asked about the Koreatown shelter, he replied, "Shelters are pretty much the same. Same rules, just different places. I do wish them luck, but I won't go in any."

Where are the Homeless of Koreatown Located?

This map shows the distribution of homeless people throughout Koreatown, with red pins denoting areas with the highest number of homeless people living on the streets or their cars.

1992 to Now: Defenseless and Under Attack

This fierce tension between the city and the community did not begin with the proposed homeless shelter. Rather, tensions between the city and community have been simmering in K-Town for decades, since Korean business owners took up arms on their rooftops to protect their shops during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.

Joon Bang maintains that the 1992 Los Angeles Riots have left the Koreatown community, particularly Korean-Americans, "disconnected" and distrustful of local government for decades. "[In 1992] I think there was deliberate and very intentional decision-making done by authorities here in Los Angeles to contain the riots within Koreatown," Joon says. "The community still lives with some of that scar, some of that pain that happened 25 years ago."

"There is still a sense that the government chose not to care about them, and I think for many people who are part of that immigrant community, they may still hold on to that," he says.

Angela Oh, a prominent activist and voice for the Koreatown community during the 1992 riots in particular, shares Bang's view. While she believes that the 1992 riots are "a whole different thing" in regard to these current issues, she says that, "Between '92 and now, the trust and the belief in local government has not really been established in Koreatown."

Our final letter to Council President Herb Wesson, in which we ask for comment on the proposed temporary homeless shelter in Koreatown.

Missing from this discussion is a representative of the city itself. Our reporting team attempted 11 times to schedule a meeting with Councilman Herb Wesson or one of his staff members. We were told repeatedly to contact Wesson's Communications Director Vanessa Rodriguez, who acknowledged our request once and offered to speak to us, then never again responded. Attached here is our final letter to the Councilman's office.

Wesson has spoken to other media outlets about the conflict. While he maintains the need for a shelter in Koreatown, he concedes that the announcement could have been handled differently. "I think I could have done a better job ensuring that people got more information about what this actually is," Wesson said in a NBC4 Los Angeles report.

Rodriguez also told NBC4 that the Korean-language media spread misinformation about the proposed shelter, which could be partly responsible for the heated opposition. Angela Oh agrees that, together with this shortage of public outreach from the city, this made the problem worse.

"You have divergent populations reading what you think is the same news, but the in-language analysis and the English language analysis are very different, and the in-language analysis is really inflaming the public," she says.

Priced Out and Kicked Out: Displacement in K-Town

John Kostrey, a real estate broker who lived in Koreatown for 14 years.

As residential facilities like The Vermont apartments are being built all throughout Koreatown, white-collar professionals and millennials alike are being drawn to the area. As an influx of wealth flows here, however, many established residents–particularly the elderly and low-income immigrants–are being displaced.

"When [these] people are displaced, the city loses a lot more than just immigrants. They lose a lot more than just communities of color. They lose the soul, the sense of community, and the culture," says Tim Phan, an activist and former intern for the Korean Resource Center.

Not only does this vast gentrification seem to pose a threat to the identity of its current population, but again raises questions among Koreatown's core community about the city's neglect of some of their most vulnerable inhabitants.

Alvaro Gomez is an embodiment of these types of stories. A security guard for the Korea Times, Gomez has been living in Koreatown for almost 21 years and says he has seen housing prices soar in his neighborhood. Gomez says he juggles three jobs, and feels he's deprived his two kids of any quality family time because he and his wife work constantly just to keep "a roof over their heads and food on the table."

Jose Contreras is a machine operator. He is part of a large construction project on South Van Ness Avenue in Koreatown.

"It's only a matter of time," he says, "if we start losing jobs or they cut down our working time, we may become homeless." He says he speaks for many in his community when imploring of Councilman Wesson and Mayor Garcetti, "Do you think about us?"

Cat Yang, the Program Associate Assistant to the Executive Director at KIWA, reflects on the city's need to help those in K-Town struggling to keep their homes. "With this homeless shelter issue, it all comes back to is this city affordable for immigrant workers, who really run the city, and how are we going to maintain the fabric of the neighborhoods of immigrant families," she says.

"We want to see our city officials make sure rent controlled apartments that currently exist are protected, that Costa-Hawkins [Rental Housing Act] is repealed, and that more affordable housing is being built," she says. She stresses that, "We want them to help make sure our immigrant community members who are low-income can stay in their homes, and feel their needs are being more and more invested in."

Resistance to Cultural Changes

Though Koreatown is often lauded for its ethnic diversity–K-Town is, after all, the birthplace of the famed Korean-Mexican taco–many residents are against changes that could jeopardize the community's distinct ethnic identity.

This has been demonstrated recently by its resistance in allowing Little Bangladesh to create its own neighborhood council. "All the first-generation Koreans said no… and one member of the existing council even went so far as to say, 'Can we call that the North Korea neighborhood council?" Oh says.

These same sorts of tensions over upholding a certain ethnic identity for K-Town have been perpetuated by the homeless shelter. Racial conflict in the community still looms for some as part of the larger narrative.

"After the LA riots, then city council member and current Board of Supervisors' Mark Ridley-Thomas led the passage of local ordinance 17909, which subjected businesses that were historically, primarily owned and operated by Korean American merchants to a separate review process, including public hearings," Kim said.

"That was a double trauma, double torment for our community. It destroyed a lot of people's lives."
– Ronald Kim, attorney and community activist

"All other businesses were able to rebuild after the LA riots, but the businesses owned by Korean Americans were subjected to a different process," says Kim. "As a result of which most of them were denied permission to rebuild."

"That was a double trauma, double torment for our community," says Kim. "It destroyed a lot of people's lives."

With this past narrative in mind, Kim believes that Wesson's proposition for a homeless shelter in K-Town may have racist undertones.

"[Wesson] wants to impose the heavy costs of an outdoor emergency homeless shelter on Koreatown," says Kim. "[Koreatown] is majority Korean American and Latino American. Whereas outside of here, the other portions of District 10, which is Central and South Los Angeles, are predominantly African American. This is consistent with his history of racially discriminatory intent against the Koreatown community and in favor of the predominantly African-American portion of his Council District," Kim said.

However, some believe that racial prejudices exist on both sides of the shelter debate. "The talks about the shelter may bring about some anti-blackness, which is a big thing in Asian American communities, where they tend to hold these very outdated principles about how to feel about other communities of color," says Tim Phan.

Joelle Byun, a current intern at the KRCLA, agrees. "The community is so split, and the Korean Resource Center is on the opposite side in fighting our own people, who are a little bit more conservative and religious," she says.

"The majority of the homeless population in Koreatown are African American. So, to me, would they have this much of an issue if it was white people, Asian people or Korean people? Is it a homeless issue or is it an issue against other people of color?" she queries. "They're using their arguments in a way that just kind of perpetuates stereotypes among people of color, specifically the black community."

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Where to now?

The latest city proposal would move the temporary homeless shelter, once set for 682 S. Vermont Avenue, to the tennis courts of Lafayette Park. Councilman Wesson and a few Koreatown representatives agreed upon this new location in response to the community's overwhelmingly negative feedback against the original site.

Joseph Reyes and his cat, Jessabel, became homeless after Joe was evicted from his Koreatown apartment.

One of the representatives who met with Wesson is Jake Jeong, President of the Wilshire Community Coalition.

"The very first question I asked is 'you know, let's potentially think about a better site outside of Koreatown, did you think about it? Would you say there maybe is one and we may need to check on it?'" Jeong said. "They did not really answer that question."

This continued lack of collective public input towards this proposed location does not sit well with the whole community.

"For him to not hold a public hearing is another procedural issue," says Jeong. "Which is why I was suggesting that this should come to the community and have a meeting with a couple hundred people, so that way we can hear their voices. But I do not know why he is not letting that happen. This is more of Council President Wesson's suggestion for a compromise."

The so-called compromise remains problematic for many: the new site is only about half a mile away from the original shelter site. Community members specifically requested the city look at other sites within District 10, not just within Koreatown.

"This location does not address any of the issues and problems which galvanized our community's opposition to 682 S. Vermont," says Kim. "We still did not get any due process or public hearing and did not get any proposed location outside of Koreatown."

Yes, the shelter was relocated. But to what extent was the community's voice considered? Does meeting with a few representatives to establish a new location reflect Koreatown residents' plea that their voices be heard by the city? According to Jeong and Kim, it's not likely the community has been appeased.

Thus, the battle over K-town's homeless shelter wages on.

While it is easy to focus on the obvious causes of this strife between Korean Americans and the local government, the outcry over the homeless shelter is only a small component of an overarching narrative that has been written into the history of Koreatown over decades. This controversy is merely a symptom of an enduring fear living inside the hearts of many immigrants, Korean or not, when they feel their cultural roots may be threatened by the new soil in which they now grow.

When their city fails to listen to their voices and respond, Korean Americans can band together and fight to defend their community.

It's true that when the streets of Koreatown burned in 1992, a searing memory of government injustice and abandonment was branded into the memories of residents. Immigrants who had worked to build lives for themselves were taught that the government, entrusted to protect and respect them, could turn a blind eye when the residents most needed to be heard.

Perhaps more importantly, it showed Korean Americans that when their city fails to listen to their voices and respond, they can band together and fight to defend their community.

Today in Koreatown, that same tension is rearing its head again, this time through subtler, nagging avenues like gentrification and diversification of a neighborhood that for so long felt like home for Korean immigrants. The fight over a new homeless shelter has little to do with the homeless, and all to do with its placement in Koreatown without public involvement in the decision. It feels to many as if the city violated the subtle sanctity that is their close-knit ethnic nexus.

Korean Americans want to protect their place in the geographic area that has come to embody their ethnic identity, while simultaneously having to adapt to a changing Los Angeles. As the community and the city move forward, responsibility will fall on both parties to communicate and listen to one another as they try to bridge cultural gaps over "A Bridge Home."

Life on the Streets of Koreatown

Living out of tents and shopping carts, many people who are homeless in Koreatown struggle to survive.

Story Update

In Memoriam:

Joseph Reyes

August 6, 1962–August 20, 2018

Image Credit: Mark Horvath

Joseph Reyes, an 11-year resident of Koreatown, lived out the end of his life experiencing homelessness on the streets right outside of his former apartment. Joe had a heart condition, and ultimately suffered from a heart attack in his tent. His beloved cat, Jessabel, is now in the care of a neighbor.