Camped out in a plaza in Little Tokyo, Thomas Miller felt pulled in two directions when city and county officials offered him a free hotel room at the LA Grand and homeless activists told him it would not translate into long-term housing.
In the city’s hesitant, piecemeal approach to clearing camps, tensions are coming from all directions. But on Thursday morning, the homeless at the center of the debate stood silent as activists denounced the agencies’ promises as empty.
“It was like my parents were getting divorced again,” Miller said. “I was torn. I don’t want to feel like I’m picking sides or anything.”
Toriumi Plaza had the potential to become the latest flashpoint of the crisis as cleaners prepared to clear what was left of the homeless encampment — one of the largest since they evicted about 200 people from the shores along Echo Park Lake last year. That earlier attempt turned violent and resulted in the arrests of some 182 people, including three members of the press.
But outreach staff had managed to move 61 people from the square to some sort of emergency shelter by Thursday afternoon, and the remaining two dozen people, including Miller, were mostly subdued as arguments heated up around them. The clean-up crews were supposed to come in at 10 p.m. on the last raids
J-Town Action and Solidarity, a grass-roots organization, held a demonstration at the site, pasting homemade signs reading “Services, not sweeping” to a metal barrier that city workers had erected around the camp. A large black banner with the inscription “No sweeping, no fence, never again is now” hung above the stairwell of an underground car park.
For the past two weeks, the group had taken to social media to call on supporters to defend the camp. They called on Councilman Kevin De León, whose district includes downtown and who is leading efforts to get the homeless into apartments, to lift the closure.
Steven Chun, organizer of J-Town Action and Solidarity, said they have spent the past 60 weeks building a relationship with camp residents. They provide the local people with warm meals, personal protective equipment and clothing every Saturday. He said they also gave people their cell phone numbers for emergencies.
The protest, Chun said, was partly to protect the rights of the camp’s residents, who don’t necessarily want hotel rooms, shelters or tiny houses because they are so tightly controlled.
“They feel like prisoners and caged animals,” Chun said.
He aimed blaming the De León office for what he called Misinformation stating that an apartment number given to camp residents instead directs them to an automated call, asking people to simply leave their contact information. City officials said the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, with joint powers, managed the phone system, not them.
“We haven’t received a call back for two days,” Chun said. “It’s just an illusion to show they’re doing something.”
Chun said the protesters planned to stay in the plaza for as long as needed to help everyone who stayed at the campsite.
“At the end of the day, we’re here for them,” he said
City officials said they told residents they were closing the area for repairs a month ago. Los Angeles County Homeless Authority Services outreach workers began visiting the site and working to move people into some form of housing.
Pete Brown, De León’s communications director, said public relations began on Feb. 16.
In a telephone interview, De León commended the outreach staff for moving many of the camp’s residents to shelters.
“I think today was very successful because the overall goal was to secure housing for our homeless neighbors,” he said. “And the overwhelming majority of our homeless neighbors in the plaza have accepted housing and that’s a good thing for our community.”
He accused his critics of putting people in apartments and exposing them to other dangers.
“When you use language like ‘sweepers are murder,’ it exacerbates the situation for those who suffer from serious mental illness,” he said.
Brown said the closure of the plaza was also in part because residents and businesses, who have long complained about the camp, are addressing public safety concerns.
He said the Los Angeles Police Department and Fire Department have received more than 130 calls for drug overdose, assault and fire-related services over the past two years.
On Wednesday, a Times reporter observed people smoking methamphetamine twice. The plaza at First and Judge John Aiso streets is just over an acre of public space with a subway bike station. The plaza is also located on top of an underground parking lot used for visitors shopping in Little Tokyo and downtown.
On the other side of the camp, at the Fugetsu-Do Sweet Shop with traditional Japanese confectionery, Brian Kito tended to the workers.
The family confectionery business has been around since 1903, he said, and it has weathered struggles, including forced relocations during World War II, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and most recently the pandemic. Kito said the camp only caused more trouble for him and other local businesses.
Kito, who is also President of the Little Tokyo Public Safety Assn. is said business owners started seeing homeless people moving into the square at the start of the pandemic two years ago.
“Then it started to grow and grow,” he said. “Then we started to see the effects of this thing.”
He said people from the camp smashed in several shop windows.
“There have been a number of overdoses on the pitch,” he said. “The fire brigade was on duty quite regularly.
“Within the last three months, tensions have been high because it was too crowded. We would see people fighting,” he said.
Rumi Fujimoto, who owns the building across from the camp and a nearby video store, said she witnessed “fighting and fires.”
She said she feels empathy for the people in the camp, especially the women, but is glad the city has moved to clear it and provide housing for residents.
Thursday, 10 a.m. Activists got into a heated argument with Brown of De León’s office. All day long they had verbally abused him and cut off interviews. They also targeted a Times photographer, claiming he worked for law enforcement. Nearby, some activists from J-Action Town and Solidarity focused on helping some people take down tents.
They handed out large holdalls. They collected items from those given shelter and began moving them to a camp for safekeeping. Volunteers said the maximum time they could hold the items was three months.
Bicycle parts lay in a heap in the middle of the camp. There were charred parts of the wall where fires had been lit. A few tents covered with blue tarps remained standing.
Angelae Cockrell and JT Jackson, both 20, lay side by side on a bench waiting to speak to a social worker with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority so the couple could get housing. She was pleased that the activists were committed to her concerns.
“That was the best part,” she said, smiling. “You did all the talking for us.”
In the evening they were gone. Only seven people remained in place.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-03-17/activists-plan-to-defend-a-homeless-encampment-in-little-tokyo City clears homeless camp in Little Tokyo