Little Tokyo homeless situation has improved, says community business owner

­UNHOUSED IN LITTLE TOKYO — The homeless encampment at Toriumi Plaza in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo as pictured May 15, 2021. Earlier this spring, city officials forced homeless community members out of the plaza and fenced off the area. photo by S. Nagano

LOS ANGELES — Homelessness remains a problem in Little Tokyo, but the situation is a lot better now than it was two-and-a-half years ago, since L.A. city officials cleared out a large homeless encampment at Toriumi Plaza in March, according to a local business owner familiar with the city action.

A city order declaring the encampment a “Special Enforcement Zone” allowed officials to remove dozens of inhabitants of the camp, located at the city-owned property on First and Aiso streets. The expulsion order stated, “No person shall sit, lie, sleep or allow items to remain in the public right-of-way, within 500 feet or 1,000 feet depending on the zone.”

Community activist Bill Watanabe, the former director of the Little Tokyo Service Center, stated in an e-mail that the Little Tokyo homeless encampment “was an eyesore as more and more people crowded into the plaza … I could see how it would drive away visitors who are not used to seeing and parking near so many homeless people.”

It is “imperative” for newly-elected Mayor Karen Bass and her administration to “do everything possible to address this intolerable situation of having to forcibly remove homeless people without any real long-term housing options,” Watanabe continued. “It is also intolerable to have many dozens of people encamped without the necessary amenities, and the fact that such encampments do have negative impacts on local businesses and those who would come as visitors, shoppers, or are local residents.”

Watanabe called the expulsion of homeless people at Toriumi Plaza a “necessary evil because of the negative impact on the local business and residential community of Little Tokyo. I do not believe the city should allow homeless people to live on public areas indefinitely … Herein lies the problem: can the city provide humane and long-term options for those who are being evicted?”

Little Tokyo has been adjacent to Skid Row for more than 100 years, so the transitory presence of homeless people in Little Tokyo is “not a new phenomenon,” he added. “What was new was the long-term presence of a large number of homeless persons. It is only natural that visitors will be alarmed … I heard a number of my friends in the suburbs say that they would not park at the Aiso parking structure because the homeless encampment is simply ‘too scary’ for them to park there and have to walk up the steps right next to the encampment.”

Watanabe isn’t sure if there is any consensus among Little Tokyo residents, businesses, and nonprofit organizations for a solution to the homeless problem, but he added, “I think everyone agrees that the quicker the city can build alternate long-term housing in massive numbers, the better and closer the city can move toward a lasting solution.”

Homeless Czar
One solution Watanabe suggested was to have Bass appoint losing mayoral candidate Rick Caruso — who had promised he could build 30,000 housing units in 300 days — as “Homeless Czar” and order him to “do whatever it takes to meet that goal.”

There are clashes of values in the Little Tokyo community about the homeless situation, Watanabe noted, where the business community is concerned about preserving their livelihoods and the homeless advocates are concerned about the inhumane treatment of their fellow human beings. “Some people have been pushing for the mass round-up and incarceration of the homeless into large encampments away from the urban areas and basically forced into fenced areas. We JAs know … that it is not humane to treat the homeless as criminals and to incarcerate them. I believe everyone feels some sense of urgency that solutions have to be identified and a rational plan has to be implemented … This is not just a Little Tokyo problem or a Los Angeles problem, but a state and national problem … the federal government can exercise formidable policies and powers to deal with this national embarrassment.”

No Community Consensus
Kristin Fukushima, managing director of the Little Tokyo Community Council, commented via e-mail, “There really is not much of a community consensus on the issue … None of them is a monolith, nor is the community as a whole.”

The Little Tokyo Public Safety Association, businesses on First and Aiso streets, as well as Little Tokyo Business Association and Little Tokyo Business Improvement District had requested the springtime sweep of the Toriumi Plaza homeless encampment, she revealed.

Blocked Sidewalks
Brian Kito, president of the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association (Koban), declared in a telephone interview that the homeless situation in Little Tokyo “is better than it has been over the last two-and-a-half years, because Aiso Plaza, at least right now, is all fenced off.”

One of the problems, though, is the homeless people are blocking the sidewalks, so there is no ADA (Americans for Disability Act) easement for the handicapped, Kito related. “At the Aiso parking lot, you have the elevator to bring the handicapped up, but they can’t get to First Street, because the sidewalk has been blocked for the last two-and-a-half years … The activist group keeps saying the homeless are entitled to this area … It’s really a shame they can’t see that the handicapped easement is very important.”

(The Los Angeles Department of Transportation stated in an e-mail: “We are working with the council office and local community organizations to discuss options to protect the plaza from vandalism. LADOT recently removed extensive graffiti in the plaza, and soon thereafter, it was tagged again. Until we can secure the plaza, any repairs may be short-lived … There is no set timeline as of yet until there is a consensus on a plan with funding … to secure the plaza.”)

The city is trying to find people places to live on a temporary basis, he noted. “Yet, amazingly, a lot of people don’t want that housing.

Why would you not want to go live somewhere, even if it’s temporary? It’s better than living out on the streets. The city was renting out prime hotel rooms in the downtown area for the homeless. You would think everyone would want to take advantage of that, but they don’t. I guess a lot of it has to do with substance abuse, having the freedom to do it on the streets.”

The homeless problem is not as bad as it was back in the ‘90s, “when lack of security and homelessness were really contributing to the downfall of Little Tokyo,” explained Kito, proprietor of Fugetsu-Do confectionary shop. Little Tokyo now has a Business Improvement District security. “In the ‘90s we had to create a volunteer patrol and had it for almost 25-30 years. We set an example for the rest of the city to follow … Chinatown was one that did, and people from the Valley came on patrols with us …I haven’t heard of any good solutions to the problem, but I suggest that law enforcement still needs to be the one to engage, so that the streets are a little bit more lawful rather than lawless.”

Homeless Deaths
According to Kito, at least six homeless people died in the Aiso Plaza encampment. “As far as I can see, it’s all substance abuse issues … Nobody seemed to figure out what to do about it. In other cities, like Long Beach, where one person died in a park, that was enough for the mayor to take action. We’ve had a number of people die here, and yet, no massive change has been made, except the entire plaza has been closed for maintenance and repairs and fenced off.”

He said it’s a shame, because people can’t get to the Plaza now. “It used to be a nice place on a spring day or fall day to sit down and have your lunch there. It can no longer be enjoyed by anyone.”

Kito described the activists protesting the expulsion of the homeless from Toriumi Plaza as “very extreme. They’re not here 24/7 like we are. Unfortunately, they have no history of what was done in order to get Little Tokyo where it is, or where it was prior to COVID … There are a lot of young JAs in that group … They don’t have to live here. What they’re doing to help the homeless is very noble.

But the way they want to help the homeless is senseless. It needs to have a purpose … If they want to get these people off the streets and on their own two feet, there are other ways to help than just throwing freebies at them. We’re talking about job training, about occupational training. Where is all that now?”

80 Years of JA History
J-Town Action & Solidarity, which opposes the expulsion of the homeless camp in Little Tokyo, announced via e-mail, “It’s only been 80 years since Executive Order 9066 displaced, criminalized and incarcerated our people, and today we see the very same thing … that criminalizes the unhoused for being in public sight … We refuse to sit back in silence as crimes against humanity are brought to our community once again.”

Like everyone in Little Tokyo, the activists don’t want people living on the streets, but, they stated, “we unequivocally oppose sweeps, ‘Special Enforcement Zones,’ and other so-called ‘solutions’ to the homelessness crisis which … criminalize and banish unhoused members of our community. The sweeps do nothing more than displace, traumatize, and shuffle unhoused people from one place to the next … This revolving door of homelessness … does nothing to get people off of the streets.”

The solution to homelessness is a home, the group emphasized, and Los Angeles, one of the biggest cities in the wealthiest country in the world, “absolutely has the resources to permanently house every single Angeleno with the services they need to get back on their feet. It is simply a matter of political will.”

Exploitive Capitalism
Homelessness is a direct result of poverty and skyrocketing costs of living, the activists argued. “We recognize that the exploitative capitalist systems of this country make safe, affordable housing unattainable for millions of Angelenos.”

The activists’ goal is that “every single Angeleno would have a permanent home and the support and resources they need to thrive. No one would be priced out of their own communities by the exploitative rents that never stop increasing … Little Tokyo would be controlled not by developers and other wealthy business interests, but by and for the people of our community. Our society would place human beings above capitalist greed and profits, and there would be no unhoused people.”

As of press time, this publication has not received a response from Pete Brown, spokesperson for City Councilmember Kevin De León, whose 14th District includes Little Tokyo.

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