Plan to make Boyle Heights Sears homeless center criticized
Bill Taormina had 17 minutes to convince the crowd in the Boyle Heights Resurrection School auditorium to support his plan to turn their gated Sears neighborhood into a gigantic homeless service center.
The “Los Angeles Life Rebuilding Center” that Taormina wants to build would house up to 10,000 homeless people and provide medical and mental health services, job training, immigration assistance and drug diversion programs.
The project would be dedicated to “saving lives,” Taormina told her audience, vowing not to build “anything resembling a prison” on the historic land.
As an activist, philanthropist, and wealthy Anaheim businessman, Taormina has helped fund several homeless housing projects in Orange County over the years.
But in Boyle Heights, he was greeted by a sea of homemade billboards saying “No Sears Detention Center” and “Respect Our Community.” Dozens of speakers criticized his plan at the June 27 meeting, calling it a “crime against humanity”, “irresponsible” and a “threat to the children of the region”. Shouts of “Take that to Beverly Hills!” were stolen.
The project seemed to many participants like a pie-in-the-sky approach to a problem that continues to grow exponentially. But the opposition displayed at the meeting was more than practical.
This reflected the frustration of Boyle Heights residents who feel their community has been consistently shortchanged. Now a stranger was telling them that the historic Sears building, once the pride of the community, would house not hundreds, but thousands of homeless people.
“It was like a whole bunch of stuff was said, but nothing made sense,” Boyle Heights resident Jasmine Flores, 21, said after the meeting. “It really seemed like an unrealistic dream that we would be sold out, when real solutions, things that could help the people of Boyle Heights, weren’t being considered.”
Some felt aggrieved that their community, already reeling from COVID-19 deaths and environmental pollution, was now expected to “fix” Los Angeles’ massive homelessness crisis.
Others lamented that the basic services they have demanded from city and county officials – street cleaning, affordable housing and better security – continue to be neglected, while homelessness takes center stage. the scene.
Several speakers castigated local elected officials for skipping the meeting.
Flores was one of more than 30 people who spoke out against the project. She said her family had come close to being homeless a few times during her childhood, and many in Boyle Heights are barely making ends meet.
Like several other speakers, she felt it was unfair that so many resources were spent on a transient community, rather than residents who have been struggling for years.
“A lot of people don’t have health insurance or dental insurance — some can’t afford dialysis,” Flores said. “To understand that hundreds of millions of dollars are going to bring people from outside of this community and help them settle, while ignoring us, was too much.”
The organizer of the meeting, Sofia Quiñones, leader of the East Los Angeles Boyle Heights Coalition, said the community’s lack of information about the project had helped to stir up outrage among residents.
“We discovered this plan in an article in the LA Times,” she said. “It was incredible. I have never heard of any politician, any planner. How can you put this giant project in our backyard and not consult the community? »
For Quiñones and others, the lack of information about the plan dates back to when residents were left in the dark about the dangers of Exide Technologies’ lead-acid battery recycling plant, which operated in the city. neighbor of Vernon.
In 2015, Exide acknowledged decades of illegal actions, including the dumping of contaminants, such as arsenic and lead, into local air, soil and water. The facility put approximately 110,000 people from surrounding communities, including Boyle Heights, at increased risk of cancer.
Cleanup efforts to remove lead from the ground surrounding homes, businesses, schools and daycares will not be complete until March 2025.
After listening for hours to their concerns, Taormina asked the 200 people present what they would accept.
Many said they wanted grocery stores and department stores, and others asked for parks and playgrounds for children. Some wanted a training center and trade school that would help prepare residents for well-paying jobs.
“What’s ironic is that a lot of what the community told me they wanted, after voicing and sharing their ideas, was what this plan calls for,” Taormina said the day after the meeting.
According to plans for the project, the Los Angeles Life Rebuilding Center would include a retail and convenience store open to the public. Current large rig parking lots on the Sears campus would be converted to grassy areas, and the center would provide property storage and vocational training in areas such as catering, security and cosmetology. It would house a substation for the Los Angeles Police Department and a staging area for the LA Fire Department. And all jobs at the facility would be open to residents of Boyle Heights first.
But the sticking point remains the idea of 10,000 people moving onto campus from the streets.
Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León, who represents Boyle Heights, said he saw “red flags” when the project was first assessed earlier this year. He was shocked by the scale, questioned the funding and worried that the city will eventually have to help fund the project.
“Situating 10,000 people, albeit temporarily, in one building and asking the city of LA to foot the bill is a failure,” said De León, who helped build a small 98-bed village in Eagle Rock more early this year.
But Taormina said in an interview the day after the meeting that he had no intention of abandoning the project. Instead, he will consult with community leaders and incorporate their ideas into a new plan.
Quiñones said his group would invite Taormina and his business partner, Sears real estate owner Izek Shomof, to another meeting, with the promise to keep an open mind.
After all, there are other Boyle Heights constituencies to question about the vision Taormina and Shomof are promoting.
In Hollenbeck Park, the homeless community held out hope that the ambitious plan might survive.
“We need help, and if someone wants to help us, why is that a bad thing?” asked Jonathan Erik Estrada, a 34-year-old Mexico City native who slept in the park for 10 years.
Estrada struggled for years with a methamphetamine addiction, he said, before getting sober four years ago, thanks in part to drug treatment services. He now lives in a Project Roomkey hotel in downtown Los Angeles and still visits his friends at the park.
But homeless people understand that their needs don’t resonate with everyone.
Viridiana Hernandez, 38, said she was spat on, had bottles and rubbish thrown at her and her tent set on fire while she slept in it at Hollenbeck Park.
“Try to get medical help when you are homeless, or a police officer to respond to a call about violence when you are homeless. It’s difficult,” she says. “Nobody cares about you.”
Hernandez, a graduate of Garfield High School, said her slide into homelessness began in 2016. Her husband died and she lost a baby during childbirth. “I was depressed for a long time,” she said. “I didn’t want to work and was in great emotional pain.”
Boyle Heights resident Aracelly Cauich has made it her mission to help local homeless people, including Hernandez, through her group, the Hummingbirds.
Cauich cooks meals, donates clothes, hygiene kits and blankets, and tries to keep Hollenbeck Park clean with the help of homeless volunteers.
“The people I work with have dignity and deserve to be treated with respect,” said Cauich, 51. “It’s sad when I hear the community shut down an idea to help the homeless but offer no help.”
But Raquel Roman, executive director of Dolores Mission of Boyle Heights’ Proyecto Pastoral, which houses about 45 men and 15 elderly women in two shelters, said she was not surprised by the community’s reaction to the services plan. homeless.
While she hailed the vision behind the Los Angeles Life Rebuilding Center, her experience makes her wonder just how feasible it is.
Roman said his organization relied on hundreds of workers to care for 60 homeless community members. They have had success in small settings, but only about 25% of Proyecto Pastoral clients leave the shelter and move into permanent housing within a year or two.
“On the one hand, a project of this size may not be feasible for homeless people,” she said. “But the region needs many more resources than are currently on offer.”
One thing everyone seemed to agree on was the need to renovate the Sears campus in a way that would make it a community asset.
The historic Sears building, built in 1927, has long served as a landmark, but the property is now home to trash and illegal dumping, said Jonathan Echeverria, chairman of historic preservation for the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council.
Still, Echeverria encountered many homeless people whose mental health issues could pose a danger to community members, he said, and that risk must also be considered.
“I just hope whatever replaces Sears maintains the character of Boyle Heights,” he said. “We have to put up with a lot in this community, and everything that happens has to be respectful of the history of the neighborhood and involve the contribution of the community.”