Kirkpatrick Tyler, Urban Alchemy chief of government and community affairs, addresses the Little Tokyo stakeholders.

RAFU STAFF REPORT

A plan to open a homeless crisis response center along a historic section of Little Tokyo has drawn a mix of reactions from merchants and residents, including calls for the city to move the facility to a different location.

During a community forum organized by the Little Tokyo Business Association on Sept. 9, stakeholders questioned the decision by the City of Los Angeles to set up a pilot program that will include a 24/7 call center, crisis response team, proactive outreach teams on the streets during business hours, and decompression center for unhoused individuals.

The program, dubbed Crisis and Incident Response through Community-Led Engagement (CIRCLE), was launched in Venice and Hollywood in November 2021 with funding from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nearly $1 billion 2021-2022 justice budget.

Brian Kito, Little Tokyo Public Safety Association president, recounts the city’s history of failing to properly notify the community of major impacts.

According to Shannon Prior, City Homelessness Initiatives program manager for Garcetti, teams consisting of one outreach worker, one mental health clinician or licensed behavioral health clinician, and one community ambassador provide an unarmed response to non-emergency 911 calls related to people experiencing homelessness (PEH) and divert those away from law enforcement.

Due to open by the end of this month, the Little Tokyo “decompression site” would serve Downtown Los Angeles, including Chinatown and Historic Core, and Lincoln Heights. The neighboring Arts District is not included.

Venice and Hollywood were selected as the pilot areas because of the high concentration of unhoused individuals and high volume of calls for service, organizers say. 

Shannon Prior (foreground) represented Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office during the Sept. 9 meeting of business owners and residents.

“The situation in Little Tokyo is very different from other areas,” points out Joanne Kumamoto, Little Tokyo Business Improvement District (BID) co-chair. Hollywood and Venice are much larger than Little Tokyo, which consists of 11 blocks. “The Hollywood location is not in a busy commercial area like it would be in Little Tokyo.” The Hollywood facility is on a side street off Hollywood Boulevard.

For about a year and a half, starting in November 2019, Little Tokyo saw the emergence of a large encampment on Toriumi Plaza above the parking garage at First and Aiso streets. Visitors no longer felt safe parking in the structure, which was built in 2012 to mitigate the loss of public parking due to community redevelopment.

However, last March 17, spurred by complaints of criminal activity, unsanitary conditions, and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations, Councilmember Kevin de Leon authorized a cleanup of the plaza. De Leon’s staff was able to refer approximately 100 of the unhoused to temporary or permanent housing. Currently, about four to six tents remain on the sidewalk outside the plaza.

Unlike Venice and Hollywood, Little Tokyo currently does not have a high concentration of unhoused individuals.

Merchants and residents attending the Sept. 9 meeting fear that the introduction of the CIRCLE program could lead to another large encampment. The proposed Little Tokyo location at 305 E. First St. is next to the Koban visitor center along “Ramen Row,” one of the community’s busiest and most popular thoroughfares.

Meanwhile, Urban Alchemy, the nonprofit organization contracted to staff the crisis response and call centers, has received mixed reviews. Although Kathleen Rawson, CEO of the Hollywood Partnership, feels that Urban Alchemy has complemented existing homeless programs, reports from Northern California and Venice have raised questions.

According to an article by Nikki Silverstein of the San Rafael-based Pacific Sun, “Criticisms of Urban Alchemy run the gamut, from being a ‘mercenary’ organization to inadequate staff training. At least six lawsuits have been filed against Urban Alchemy since it was founded in 2018Last year, more than 450 employees filed a potential class-action suit alleging labor violations.”

Spectrum News 1 reported that problems in Venice have less to do with Urban Alchemy and more to do with the fact that L.A. County has too few mental health beds and too little affordable housing. “Most of their time,” according to Spectrum reporter Kate Cagle, “is spent building relationships with the unhoused community that will only pay off with time.”

The Urban Alchemy website states that most of its 1,100 employees “have served life sentences in prison,” but did “serious self-work to get out from under” their incarceration.

Despite the Little Tokyo stakeholders’ impassioned calls for the city to change the location, Prior said she doubted that the location can be changed due to the lack of alternate available city-owned space.   

Friday’s meeting was convened by the Little Tokyo Business Association (LTBA) and held at the Miyako Hotel Los Angeles. LTBA organized the gathering in response to concerns raised by merchants and residents, among them:

• City’s failure to consult Little Tokyo leadership in advance of the selection of the problematic site.

• Missed opportunity to build upon outreach and referral services that are already part of a collaborative effort between the Council District 14 office and the Little Tokyo BID.

• Potential negative impacts to Little Tokyo’s 440 businesses, 1,000 seniors, and three childcare centers.

Photos by ELLEN ENDO/Rafu Shimpo

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  1. City will put Little Tokyo business and citizens in grave condition, Urban Alchemy is another money grab non profit organization, do not trust them,for yourself research Urban Alchemy on the internet and I believe you will come to same conclusion!