Homeless Crisis Part II

Koreatown is a neighborhood that prides itself on having created something out of nothing—in the 1960s it was a working-class area inhabited mostly by Korean immigrants who went on to establish many thriving businesses. Since then, it has become one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Los Angeles: Approximately 7.1 percent of the population is white, 51.8 percent is Hispanic, 4.9 percent is black, 33.6 percent is Asian, 1.5 percent is “mixed,” and 1.1 percent is “other,” according to information gathered from the U.S. 2010 census and from the 2012–16 American Community Survey.

Koreatown is now known for having one of the largest concentrations of nightclubs and 24-hour businesses and restaurants in the country. It’s undergoing the same gentrification process that has swept through Los Angeles and displaced many.

Protesters march down Wilshire on May 24, 2018, in anger about a temporary homeless shelter being built in Koreatown. In May 2018, Lee staged a protest against a protest against the city of Los Angeles’ proposal to build a homeless shelter in Koreatown. More than 100 people showed up to oppose the homeless shelter proposal, Lee says. Some of them shouted stereotypes about homeless people, according to Lee—how they were dangerous and drug addicts—and said they didn’t want “people like that” around their children, he recalls. Lee stood in the midst of the angry chaos of the protest, holding a cardboard sign. “Koreatown Choose Love,” one side read. “Least of These,” read the other side—a partial quote from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:40, “as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” It was a Sunday, and he hoped to catch the eye of his fellow Korean Christians leaving services. “Koreans have come a long way,” Lee says, “with many of them fighting … to finally ‘make it’ to middle class—only to push away the middle class.” But as a Korean American, he felt very sure that “all Koreatown residents were [not] against the homeless shelter.”

Lee hadn’t initially planned on anything broader than a one-off counterprotest. But people saw his photo on Twitter and on the news and started to contact him, telling him they wanted to join forces in support of Koreatown’s homeless population. And so Koreatown for All was born. The group now has five core activists and hundreds of drop-in volunteers—all of whom walk the streets of Koreatown, acting as de facto case managers: talking with homeless people, keeping track of their needs, and connecting them to resources and information. The volunteers range from teenagers to senior citizens. Some are attorneys, some business owners. Another, Lee says, is a reality television producer. One of them is Jane Nguyen. Nguyen says her entire life purpose shifted after she first saw a tweet about Lee and his protest. Before, she had a full-time office job. Now her entire focus is on helping the homeless. She gives her phone number to her unhoused neighbors, and she shared a slew of urgent texts from them with me:

“Do you guys have tarps and clamps and extra heavy duty blankets—any pillows?” “I need a tent.” “I’m homeless and a friend of mine said you could help me out. Any kind of help to make life a little easier. Text me back if you can help.” Lucrecia Macias, 41, gets ready for the day in her home, a tent on the sidewalk behind a bank in Koreatown, on Nov. 10.

Julie Pena

On a Friday night in November, Nguyen drove me to East Eighth Street, to the tent where Lucrecia Macias, a 41-year-old woman with stage 3 lymphoma, is living. She had covered the tent’s holes with colorful scarves and butterfly appliqués, and there was a determined air of cheerfulness about her. Macias wasn’t home, a young man in a white gym suit told us. “She’s still in the hospital,” he said. No one knew exactly when she would be home again. “Home” was a row of half a dozen tents, surrounded by mounds of children’s toys—there was a pink-and-white plastic stove that looked a lot like the one I pretended to cook on when I was a child—and grown-up pots and pans and tools and bicycle frames and tires, one of which was hanging from the top branches of a tall oak tree above Macias’ tent. Everything was inexplicably random, perhaps the most familiar hallmark of homelessness.

Two days later, I went back to the encampment. The smell of bleach and lavender incense wafted through the air. The same young man in the gym suit told me Macias still wasn’t home. This time, there was an air of protectiveness about him. But when I told him Nguyen from Koreatown for All had sent me, he nodded and waved me past a mound of metal bicycle parts next to Macias’ tent. “Wait a minute,” Macias called out.

I could hear her sweeping the cloth floor of her tent with a broom. Then she lifted the canvas door, inviting me inside. She had covered the tent’s holes with colorful scarves and butterfly appliqués, and there was a determined air of cheerfulness about her as she began to talk. Yes, she had been in the hospital for a few days, she said, as the chemotherapy she’d undergone made her prone to viruses. But the medicine had helped her feel better, and the cancer was in remission, she said confidently. Macias became homeless three years ago, because she had a meth addiction, she said. She said she removed herself from her home, as otherwise, her entire family would have been evicted. The substance abuse came after she filed a rape charge against her husband, who was deported as a result of her allegation, according to Macias. She thought the meth would help her keep up her energy, she told me. At the time, she was a live-in vocational nurse and a single mom. When she moved out, she said, she had to leave everyone behind. Now she’s smoking only cannabis to deal with the pain from the cancer, she explained, and she’s ready to be back with her children. Until that happens, she cooks for the young people who live in the nearby tents. “They all call me ‘mom,’ ” she said proudly. Everyone, including Macias, takes turns staying up all night because they know they are never safe on the streets. Jodan Wischmeier, 42, holds her dog Rusty outside of her home in an alley in Koreatown on Nov. 9.

As we continue the article of Homelessness in this country through the eyes of those homeless in Koreatown, LA the same problems and helplessness is being played out in other cities. Please be aware that the problem of homelessness is not the only factor that will be a serious problem for other citizens in each town that doesn’t address this issue with compassion and figor because other issues of health for all is present.

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