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"Korea Daily’s Article Made Me Do Something About the Homeless Issue In Koreatown”

Changhee Park
Changhee Park
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[LA중앙일보] 기사입력 2018/09/20 20:09

[An Exclusive Interview] Korea Daily Publisher Meets With LA City Council President Herb Wesson

Photo / Sanjin Kim

Photo / Sanjin Kim

"Korean Community Is A 30 year Friend”
"Change Of Site Was Not NIMBYism!”

“In every measure, this was historic.”
Korean-American Los Angeles City Attorney Richard Kim was shocked when he heard that Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson decided to move the temporary homeless shelter site to another location.

This past May, the initial site at 682 S. Vermont Avenue was announced at a joint press conference held at the location by Mayor Eric Garcetti and Council President Herb Wesson. This shelter was the first announced location for the Mayor’s Bridge Home program designed to alleviate homelessness until permanent housing could be built in the future.

However, the site was met with immediate opposition from Koreatown residents and business owners. Most were opposed because of the lack of public process and as well as concerns with its location in the heart of Koreatown. In the following weeks, protests and demonstrations ensued, including opposition at a packed City Council meeting at City Hall.

Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson

Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson

As Council President, Wesson has significant influence in everything from development to wage laws in the city, and many consider him to be the most powerful politician in Los Angeles. That is why Kim was so surprised to hear that Wesson agreed to relocate the shelter from the originally selected site. “From the LA Riots to redistricting, the Korean-American community felt systematically marginalized. However this shelter issue changed everything.”

After having numerous meetings with local stakeholders, Wesson identified the tennis court south of Lafayette Park, near Wilshire Boulevard and Hoover Street, as a potential site. Wesson recently sat down with Korea Daily publisher Changhee Park for an exclusive interview in his Western Avenue office. He talked frankly about the entire shelter process that started from May 2nd to August 2nd when the Hoover site was announced.

-It was a big decision on your part to agree to the alternate site. At the outset, most people that know you and were familiar with the situation told us that under no circumstances would you change your initial selection of the Vermont site.

“Right after we announced the bridge home project. we were analyzing and reviewing the Vermont site. There was a big meeting in the mayor’s office. Maybe 3 days after the announcement. we had a meeting with a dozen organizations in the Koreatown area. I looked them in the eye and I said this at the very first meeting: If you have another site that is in this part of town and is owned by the city. I will look at that site as well. So it was not a big decision for me to adjust the site. It was the right decision. We somehow stumbled upon the best location.”

Korea Daily’s publisher Changhee Park

Korea Daily’s publisher Changhee Park

Even though Wesson said that he was open to change the location, most people thought it was highly unlikely. When the talks were getting heated between the city and the community, one person who works in City Hall told Korea Daily this: “If the Koreatown project falls apart, every other shelter projects will fall apart. So that’s why he can’t change the site. Of course people are going to oppose the shelter. But you have to understand that Wesson is getting enormous support citywide. Even though Koreans are opposed to it, there is only about 5% of Korean voters in Council District 10.”

However the Korean community’s voice was heard. And after the agreement, many people were eager to take credit for it. Even the Prime Minister of South Korea Lee, Nak-yeon was mentioned within social media.

-Some people are giving Prime Minister of South Korea credit for the change of the shelter location. They say he was able to persuade Mayor Garcetti to change the site. Is it true?

“I did hear that the Korean minister is a rising star(laugh). It is the responsibility of the individual council person to come up with the process to find the location. By the time the mayor had his conversation with the prime minister, we were already working to move the location. I had a lot of meetings with the individuals in that area. Across the street there is a LAfayette park.I wanted to see if I can move to the tennis court.”

-You received criticism throughout this process. Do you feel that you were misunderstood?

“I don’t think that I was misunderstood. I think some people may have misunderstood the issue. I think had we done a better job in laying out exactly what was going to occur. Then it would not have been that bad. I have no problem in referencing your publication in Korea Daily. That is the first time when I told myself and said ‘wait a miniute. we do have an issue.’”

-Most of us are not against the idea of providing homeless people a place to live. This was a complex issue from the get-go. Many were also concerned about mental health issues and in particular there were concerns about public safety. Do you have a plan to address these concerns?

"Im glad that you brought that question up. I have always believed that if individuals have mental problems or mental issues, the best way to serve them is to try to create a monitored environment for them to live in. So i think it is safer for them to have the [monitored] environment rather than have them on the streets. I agree with you that this is a very complex issue. And i think the city of LA is going to do a much much better job dealing with this issue because of the debate we had in Koreatown. Because of concerns for safety. We are now working on a plan to provide LAPD security at not just the Koreatown location but all locations. I dont know it would have occured if it wasn’t for the conversation with the Korean community. Also that location was recommended by the Korean community. We are going to make advisory committees. They will work directly in the bridge home projects so they will know exactly what’s going on and help monitor how they are working. I think at the end of the day. because of this debate and even though I got grey hair for it, we are going to wind up with better monitoring and better security. We will have security 24 hours a day. We are going to have support from the LAPD for the whole day.”

-Do you think the opposition voice that Korean-Americans raised was rooted in ‘NIMBYism’? Korean communnity still suffers from the traumatic experiences from LA Riots to redistricting.

"First of all, the riots were devastating. I was here and lived through it. Regarding the redistricting, we had over 26 hearings in the city of LA. 3 or 4 were held in Koreatown. Everybody was afforded an opportunity to give their opinion as to how the city would reshape itself. I thought the redistricting process was fair. NIMBYyism is everywhere. But it’s a small percentage of people. The reason why we came to that location is not because of NIMBYism. It was because we all acknowledged that we had a homeless issue. I would stand up on the highest mountain and defend the Korean community. I do not believe that they had NIMBYism. Majority of people wanted to solve the solution, and we found one.”

-People were asking ‘why Koreatown first’? Maybe because we are easy to manipulate?

“I disagree with that. The reason was because the numbers drove us there. Korea Daily did a special on it and we followed that. It was not because of people being marginalized. Like I said I have a long history with great working relationship with Koreatown. Not too long ago, my mother passed away. I was devastated. My friends in the Korean community helped me get out of that. I didn’t go to work for a month. It was them who encouraged me to move forward. I would not pick on that community. Ever. But there are some people that might say that because it was convenient for them. It was the numbers identified in Korea Daily and LAHSA. So we knew that there was a problem there. And if we don’t do anything about it it would get worse. That’s why it was selected. Pure and simple.”

-We believe that it is time for the Korean American community to take the initiative on the homeless issue and do our part to fight homelessness. What can the community do?

“It has got to be a success. The only way for it to be a success is to have people make it a success. The first thing is once we get a final approval, I would create an advisory committee. There will be individuals who would be appointed to this committee so that they can actually be engaged and see how it’s operating and make recommendation. You have to connect with the homeless and try to make them remember what it was like to live a semi-normal life. So I would hope that every other month we can do something. Like all of us can go and have dinner. I would like to go to stores together where they can have a pair of socks and shoes. I would hope to have a laundry night so we as a community will help ensure that we launder their clothes. The most important thing to do is to let them know that we give a damn. The people who are blessed who sleep in our own bed should show them that we care by helping out the people who are less fortunate. i know the Koreans would step up to the plate because they always do. You go to most of the Korean churches in the area. They always have feeding program and blanket programs. They give a darn. They would do everything in their power to make this succeed. They will do their part. I have no doubt.”

-Yascha Mounk, in his latest book ‘The People vs. Democracy’ claims that if there are many ethnic groups, it makes democracy that much difficult. The Korean community is at a transitioning period between its 1st and 2nd generation. We want to be able to blend in to mainstream America. Should we adjust ourselves accordingly in order to achieve that? Or should we be conscious of our heritage and keep our identity? Would that help us be more respected in America?

"Being in this country my whole life born as an African American, I had unique challenges. Even though I had been able to mainstream to be elected at a very diverse district. I am still proud of who I am. But I programmed [myself to engage with] people of different races and countries. That’s primarily what the Korean community has been doing. They are businessmen, elected officials, firemen. policemen, business owners and construction owners. They are proud of their heritage and where they are from. But they are also proud of the fact that they are Americans or their children are Americans. I don’t view that as a problem. I would think the Korean community is the perfect example to master that. When I first started being a public servant in 1987 you saw a smaller circle of Korean community. That circle has got much much bigger. In order to succeed, you have to interface with different areas and different beliefs. The Korean community has improved leaps and bounds. Is it challenging? Yeah. Can you do it? Without a doubt. Latino, African American, Japanese, Chinese. Everybody has got to do that. All of us make adjustments. I don’t live in an area where there are people that just looks like me. When i go out to run for a political office, I have to appeal to everyone. It maybe somewhat challenging. But what makes this country great is our diversity.”

-CD 10 election is being held in 2020. What kind of person should be our next councilman in this district?

"At this point I have 2 years left. I am focused on as much as I can in this district. I have not selected any person that I support at this time. I have a lot of faith in the residents in CD 10 and they will pick the right person.”

-Any last words you want to say to our readers.

“I want to thank them for being engaged. They need to take advantage of this situation and grow and expand it so that they can ensure they have a say in the future. Where it relates to any kind of city issue that not just affects Koreatown but the city of Los Angeles. They need to spend some time studying how this government works. Because as they went through this process and the more they learned, the more effective they got. The more articulate their arguments were. They gave good suggestions that were off the chains. I’d like to see more engagement, more involvement because they are a real asset. The recommendations and the idea they came up with were unbelievable. If you have these gifts. you should share them. I’ve been here since 1987 and I saw the commmunity grow and become more effective. Even though this was a tough process I am very proud of them.”

Back in May 2016, then presidential candidate Donald Trump said this: “The only important thing is the unification of the people, because the other people don’t mean anything.”
After the exclusive interview with Wesson, I thought of what Trump said. According to Trump’s analogy, what Korean community did for 92 days[from May 2nd to August 2nd 2018] meant something. We will be remembered as being ‘united’ for the cause. If we were not united, nobody would have listened to us.

※Who is Herb Wesson?

Wesson was born in Ohio as the son of an auto factory worker in 1951. He moved to California in his 20s because his dad told him to seek his future outside of Ohio. The 66-year-old Cleveland native wanted to be a stand-up comedian. Instead, he jumped into politics.
After working for black political leaders such as former City Councilman Nate Holden and former Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke, Wesson was elected to the state Assembly in 1998. He became the second African American speaker of the assembly four years later. In 2005, he won the City Council’s District 10 seat, which now includes Leimert Park, Mid-City and Koreatown.
Wesson made history in 2012 when he was elected as the first African American Council President.

Korean Version : "중앙일보 기사 보고 노숙자 문제 해결 결심"

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