Tamlyn Tomita, dressed in protective gear, addresses a caravan protest in front of Sakura Gardens on Tuesday. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

Horns blared on Boyle Avenue in front of Sakura Gardens on Tuesday as Save Our Seniors held a caravan rally, 11 days before conditions-of-sale placed upon Pacifica when it acquired the four former Keiro facilities in 2016 are due to expire.

Amid a pandemic, an issue long simmering in the Japanese and Japanese American communities has taken on a sense of greater urgency. In 2016, as a condition imposed by then-State Attorney General Kamala Harris, Pacifica agreed as part of the purchase that they would not substantially change the culturally sensitive living environment at the former Keiro Intermediate Care Facility, as well as two nursing homes and a retirement home, for at least five years.

With those conditions set to expire, Pacifica has presented a proposal to replace ICF and construct a multi-unit family apartment complex and parking garage during a meeting of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council Planning and Land Use Committee (BHNC PLUC).

In a statement released on Tuesday (see sidebar), Pacifica declared that ICF residents would not be evicted, but also stated that the ICF model has become obsolete.

“Serving primarily Medi-Cal beneficiaries, the ICF operates at a substantial loss. Pacifica has continued to fund millions of dollars in losses to keep the ICF operational, but this is not sustainable,” Pacifica said.

Francine Imai offers a prayer for staff and residents of ICF. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

“None of the current residents of the ICF will be evicted. In light of the unprecedented healthcare crisis related to COVID-19 and its devastating impact on seniors, Pacifica is developing a plan to partner with residents, family members, facilities and the community to ensure the availability of necessary services and safe care options to meet the needs of the Sakura ICF seniors.”

Several dozen cars drove up and down Boyle, with signs in English and Japanese that read “Protect Our Seniors” and “No Evictions.” In the middle of the street, a cluster of media took video of a stage set up on the back of a flatbed truck. Organizers wore white protective suits and urged social distancing.

Francine Imai, whose mother resides in the Intermediate Care Facility, offered a prayer. She praised the staff of ICF and administrator Beverly Ito for the care given to the 90 residents, seven of whom, she noted, are more than 100 years old.

“Please do not allow Pacifica to close the facilities in a time of need when we are facing the COVID pandemic and please allow this facility to stay open,” Imai said, her eyes closed.

“Many of our parents were relocated into concentration camps early in their life. Please don’t allow this injustice to happen during the elderly part of their lives as well.”

The caravan rally was organized by Save Our Seniors, one of two groups that have formed since the 2016 sale. During the rally, statements of support were read from Councilmember Kevin de Leon and Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi. Nancy Takayama represented the Japanese American Citizens League’s Pacific Southwest District, as well as the Mile High, Twin Cities and San Fernando Valley chapters.

David Silvas of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council was among the speakers at the caravan protest. (MARIO GERSHOM REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

David Silvas of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council reiterated the council’s strong opposition to plans to build housing on the ICF site.

Actor and activist Tamlyn Tomita spoke as a member of the “sandwich generation” that is taking care of elderly parents. “Gentrification will inevitably come, but it comes at a cost of displacing long-time residents. It hurts our community, it hurts our neighbors,” she said.

Carlos Montes of Centro CSO said that the issue is broader than the Japanese American community and that the Chicano Movement supports the efforts to stop any evictions of elderly residents.

“I am here in solidarity with the Japanese American community. For Pacifica to do this in the middle of a pandemic is a human rights violation,” Montes said.

At the same time, John Kanai, Dr. Keiko Ikeda of Koreisha Senior Care and attorney Dan Mayeda addressed the general meeting of the Little Tokyo Community Council. Mayeda, who is representing Koreisha pro bono, said Keiro Senior Healthcare, as the seller of the facilities, has the ability to request an extension on the conditions from State Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

“I do not understand what the downside is from Keiro’s perspective — to request a short extension of the conditions to actually prevent Pacifica from doing what it says it’s going to do, which is not to evict the residents from some period of time,” Mayeda said. “It would be great to have an alternative for them, but let’s do it under a condition where we’re not completely under the gun. Let’s make Pacifica actually comply for another couple of years until we can find suitable alternative facilities.”

Doug Aihara, as a newly elected member of the Keiro board, said that the issue is being looked at by the organization. The board was to meet on Wednesday.

“I know from talking with (CEO) Gene (Kanamori) and the board president (Lynne Miyamoto), they are very concerned obviously for the health of the ICF residents. We fully support, at the same time, when the time comes, that the movement of the patients out of ICF is done in a safe, humane manner,” Aihara said in response to Mayeda.

Back at Sakura Gardens, the gates to the facility were closed except for a handful of cars that exited during the hour-long protest. Some staff, including security guards, could be seen observing.

Karie Horie Addison said her father is a resident of ICF and her mother was admitted in the Memory Care unit. Umeko Horie passed away in February 2020. Horie Addison said she felt that Pacifica was not committed to maintaining culturally sensitive care.

“During my mom’s short stay, there was a lot of staff turnover and very few Japanese-speaking staff. The only Japanese cultural connection was meals and other residents. She had dementia and had difficulty communicating with non-Japanese-speaking staff, especially towards the end of her life. I felt that Pacifica was neither sensitive or committed to providing Japanese-speaking or Japanese culturally-aware staff,” Horie Addison said.

After the rally, organizer Haru Kawano walked down Boyle Avenue picking up small bits of trash and cleaning up.

“This is typical Japanese American, we leave things better than it was,” she said.

Kawano grew up in Boyle Heights and her father Nobi and uncle Yosh both resided at the former Keiro facilities. Nobi and Yosh became famous as the clubhouse managers for the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs and sports writers would often visit them at the Lincoln Heights facility.

As a retiree, Kawano said it was important to be there. She noted that many adult children are worried about what will happen to their parents after the conditions expire.

“Dad and Uncle passed away in 2018, which is a blessing in disguise. They would understand they were in danger, but they would just be terrified. So would all the rest of the elderly here. I can’t imagine the kind of terror they’re going through,” Kawano said.

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