Homeless shelter supporters line San Pedro street with candles and a message
Holding candles in the dark, an estimated 60 to 100 people, including some who have been homeless, lined a block-long sidewalk in San Pedro Monday, Sept. 10.
A consistent message could be seen on the signs:
- “We are the same as you (minus the place to live);”
- “Stand up for our unhoused neighbors;”
- And “Yes, in my backyard.”
The demonstration was held in support of building temporary “bridge” housing throughout the city of Los Angeles, including in San Pedro and Wilmington, as a way to bridge the gap between living on the streets and permanent housing.
“If we want a real solution to the problem, this is the solution,” said Mel Tillekeratne, one of the main organizers of #SheDoes, the movement that sponsored the gathering.
The low-key candlelight demonstration was held on the same block — 500 S. Gaffey St. — where an impassioned protest took place on Saturday, Sept. 8. That event drew about 300 people in opposition of building two temporary homeless shelters in San Pedro and Wilmington.
The vigil was quiet and subdued, though when a passing motorist hit his horn in support, the crowed sent up a “Whoop!” in response. No counter-demonstrators turned out.
The #SheDoes movement, which advocates for more shelter space for women, has been lending its support to bridge housing projects throughout the city, including in Koreatown where a shelter project also proved contentious.
Residents who support the Beacon Street shelter in San Pedro reached out to a member of the #SheDoes group for help, said Tillekeratne.
“Residents from San Pedro who approached us said they were getting a lot of heat for the new shelter, but they didn’t really have an organization built up that had the capacity to organize something like this,” he said.
The aim of the vigil was to show that homeless people “still have a voice,” she said, “have rights just like you and me,” he said.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is testing the waters for a 2020 presidential run, unveiled the $20 million A Bridge Home plan in April.
The first shelter, housed in trailers near Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, opened Monday, Sept. 10.
Some 25 shelters are expected to be put up throughout the city, in all of the city’s 15 council districts, in the coming months.
Bridge housing, viewed as a linchpin to ongoing efforts to move homeless people off city streets, has the strong support of Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino who represents the Watts-to-Harbor 15th District. Several of his staff members participated in the vigil. He has proposed local shelters at 515 N. Beacon St., San Pedro, and 828 Eubank Ave. in Wilmington.
“There are two options,” said Branimir Kvartuc, Buscaino’s director of communications. “To leave people living on the streets or to house them.”
But opposition in both San Pedro and Wilmington has grown.
Critics argue that both sites are too close to businesses, homes, recreation facilities and tourism areas, and are pushing for an alternative site, specifically unused federal buildings on Terminal Island, an industrial expanse that lies between San Pedro and Long Beach and is largely used by the twin ports.
Shari Weaver, who heads up Harbor Interfaith Services’ Coordinated Entry System that does outreach to the homeless, was among those attending the vigil.
“I wish this was an issue we could address and satisfy everyone,” she said. “There is no perfect solution.”
When Charlena McFarland, 52, showed up to join the vigil, Weaver gave her a big hug. Her T-shirt read: “Thank you S.P. I’m in!”
After being homeless in San Pedro for four years, McFarland was finally placed in housing in January. She’d been homeless off and on, she said, but the last time was the hardest. “This time it was bad,” she said. She lived on sidewalks and parks in San Pedro during those years, “Just here and there,” she said.
When she arrived for the vigil she was awaiting to hear the results of a job interview she’d had earlier that day.
Those success stories, Weaver hopes, will become more common with the added temporary bridge housing. Among the biggest challenges for social workers, she said, is the lack of temporary shelter space to help people begin the transition. A 2018 count showed there were 497 homeless in San Pedro, she said, adding the need for temporary shelter is great.
The council office is awaiting a city assessment, expected at the end of this month, of the Beacon Street park-and-ride lot that sits across from the World Cruise Terminal and the Eubank parcel, the former job hall for dockworkers.
Joanne Rallo, one of the founders of Saving San Pedro, the group that organized Saturday’s demonstration against the properties, said the Beacon Street parcel is inappropriate. Homeowners who overlook the property have hung signs of opposition from their houses.
“How could our councilman want to ramp up business and tourism with new developments down at the waterfront or a revitalization of Ports O’Call, yet have a shelter within view of our World Cruise Terminal?” Rallo said in a written comment Monday. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Kvartuc said Monday that the Beacon Street site radius for cleanups and other services would take in the Plaza Park and Post Office area, which has been heavily impacted with homeless encampments in recent years. There were “too many barriers,” he said, for the Terminal Island site to work, among them being that it would not be within the necessary radius to qualify for the city’s attached cleanup services to be used. While the exact radius is yet to be determined, he said it would probably be in the 1- to 2-mile range. Since the program is voluntary, he said, it is also thought unlikely that many participants would agree to be housed in such an isolated area.
Adding the beds, he said, also will allow stricter enforcement of sidewalk camping laws to be enforced under recent court stipulations.
Rallo said Harbor Area residents have seen a rapid decline in their communities as a vagrant element among the homeless has become more emboldened.
The dueling public demonstrations in the past few days have ramped up what already had become a heated debate in the port communities.
Petitions opposing both the San Pedro and Wilmington sites have been making the rounds in the two harbor communities this summer and disagreement over the issue is not about to quietly die down.
Amber Sheikh Ginsberg of San Pedro, who has spearheaded a joint working group on homelessness among the area’s numerous neighborhood councils, said Monday’s vigil was intended to provide a human face to homelessness.
“The real motivation is to represent our homeless neighbors, especially those who have (died) on the streets,” she said, adding that #SheDoes had reached out to them with an offer of support. “I think it’s time to bring the human face of homelessness back to this discussion.”
Members of the #SheDoes — the name is an answer to the question “Does she deserve shelter?” — movement gathered outside Los Angeles City Hall in April to call for the commitment of a part of the city budget this year to go toward shelter beds exclusively for homeless women, who are vulnerable to becoming victims of sexual assault. The mayor has since made a commitment to the SheDoes movement to standing up six shelters for women, Tillekeratne said.
The local shelters, Kvartuc said, will include a specific number of beds set aside for women. They also will offer services to address drug and alcohol addictions as well as mental illness, with the goal of stabilizing those who are ready and willing to move off the streets for good.
Bridging the housing gap
As the city continues to build permanent supportive housing for the homeless, the temporary shelters are seen as a transitional piece of the puzzle in solving the city’s homelessness crisis. More than two dozen are expected to eventually be up and running in all of the 15 council districts throughout the city of Los Angeles.
Residents would be pre-screened before being brought in and would stay only about 90 days before being moved into a more permanent home or mental health rehabilitation center. Altogether, the temporary shelters would remain in place for three years and would include 24-hour supervision. A private security firm will be sought, Kvartuc said, to be attached to the site.
Details about the local shelters will be hammered out in a process that will begin with a community open house once the site is deemed viable, he said. Included will be design issues, the number of beds — 75 is the early number cited — and other details. The idea, he said, will be to make the shelters “unassuming.”
“There will not be people lining up or loitering around it,” he said. “It’ll be much more unassuming than our current situation is.”
The councilman, he added, has promised to “pull the plug” on the shelter if it is not successful.
Despite a United Way poll that found support for the program, the roll out of the mayor’s A Bridge Home has hit some significant speed bumps in the early months.
In June, residents and business owners in Koreatown marched on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall to protest A Bridge Home shelter planned on South Vermont Avenue. The protesters wore paper masks marked with large “X”s covering their mouths and chanted “Apologize!” They carried banners that read “Mayor Garcetti Stop Disrespecting Ktown” and paper printouts with messages such as “No Hearing, No Tent!” and “Pick Proper Location.”
As it has in the Harbor Area, that effort led to talk of a recall against the district’s representative, Councilman Herb Wesson, who met with community members and agreed on another site.
Among signs spotted at Saturday’s demonstration were those urging that Buscaino be recalled from office.
Staff Writer Elizabeth Chou contributed to this article