Plan to make Boyle Heights Sears a homeless center criticized

Bill Taormina had 17 minutes to convince the crowd in the Boyle Heights Resurrection School auditorium to support his plan to transform their gated Sears neighborhood into a massive homeless services center.

The Los Angeles Life Rebuilding Center that Taormina plans to build would house up to 10,000 homeless people and provide medical and mental health services, job training, immigration assistance and substance abuse diversion programs.

The project would be dedicated to “saving lives,” Taormina told his audience, vowing to build “nothing like a prison” on the listed property.

As an activist, philanthropist, and wealthy Anaheim businessman, Taormina has funded several homeless shelters in Orange County over the years.

But in Boyle Heights, he was greeted with a sea of ​​homemade poster boards that read “No Sears Detention Center” and “Respect Our Community.” Dozens of speakers at the June 27 meeting criticized his plan, calling it “a crime against humanity,” “irresponsible,” and “a threat to the region’s children.” Shouts of “Bring that to Beverly Hills!” were thrown around.

For many participants, the project felt like a future model for a problem that is growing exponentially. But the opposition displayed at the meeting was about more than practicality.

It reflected the frustration of Boyle Heights residents who feel their community has been continually neglected. Now, an outsider told them that the iconic Sears building, once the pride of the community, would house not hundreds but thousands of homeless people.

“It was like a whole lot of things were said but nothing made sense,” said Jasmine Flores, 21, a longtime resident of Boyle Heights, after the meeting. “It seemed like a very unrealistic dream that we were sold while real solutions, things that could help people from Boyle Heights were not considered.”

Some felt sad that their community, already battered by COVID-19 deaths and pollution, was now being asked to “fix” Los Angeles’ massive homelessness crisis.

Others complained that basic services they demanded from city and county officials — street cleaning, affordable housing and better security — continued to be neglected while homelessness took center stage.

Several speakers berated elected local officials for skipping the meeting.

Flores was one of more than 30 people who opposed the project. She said her family was nearly homeless a number of times during her childhood, and many in Boyle Heights are still struggling to make ends meet.

Like several other speakers, she felt it was unfair that so many resources would be dedicated to a transient community rather than residents who have been struggling for years.

“Many people don’t have health or dental insurance — some can’t afford dialysis,” Flores said. “To wrap my head around hundreds of millions of dollars that people are bringing in from outside of this community and helping them settle down while we ignore each other — that was too much.”

Meeting organizer Sofia Quiñones, leader of the East Los Angeles Boyle Heights Coalition, said the lack of community information about the project helped spark outrage from local residents.

Two men walk through a building.

Businessmen Izek Shomof, right, owner of the Boyle Heights Sears building, and Bill Taormina at the 1.7 million square foot building February 15 in Los Angeles.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“We learned about this plan from an article in the LA Times,” she said. “It was amazing. I’ve never heard of politicians or planners. How can you put this huge project in our backyard and not consult the community?”

For Quiñones and others, the lack of information about the plan was a reminder that local residents were left in the dark about the dangers of Exide Technologies’ lead-acid battery recycling plant, which operated in neighboring Vernon.

In 2015, Exide admitted decades of illegal activity, including dumping pollutants like arsenic and lead into local air, soil, and water. The facility put around 110,000 people in the surrounding communities, including Boyle Heights, at increased risk of cancer.

Cleanup efforts to remove lead from the soil around homes, businesses, schools and daycares will not be complete until March 2025.

After listening to her concerns for hours, Taormina asked the 200 present what they would accept.

Many said they wanted grocery stores and department stores, while others called for parks and playgrounds for children. Some wished for a training center and vocational school that would prepare residents for well-paid jobs.

“What’s ironic is that a lot of what the community told me they wanted, after venting and sharing their ideas, is what this plan requires,” Taormina said the day after the meeting.

According to the project plans, the Los Angeles Life Rebuilding Center would include a retail and convenience store open to the public. The current big rig parking lots on the Sears campus would be converted to grassy areas, and the center would offer property storage and professional training in areas such as hospitality, security and cosmetics. It would house a Los Angeles Police Department substation and a staging area for the LA Fire Department. And all jobs at the facility would be open first to residents of Boyle Heights.

But the sticking point is still the idea of ​​10,000 people moving from the streets to the campus.

Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León, who represents Boyle Heights, said he saw “red flags” when he first reviewed the project earlier this year. He was shocked by the scope, questioned the funding, and feared the city would end up having to help fund the project.

“Putting 10,000 people in one building, even temporarily, and asking the City of LA to foot the bill is a false start,” said De León, who helped build a tiny 98-bed community in Eagle Rock earlier this year .

But Taormina said in an interview the day after the meeting that he had no plans to abandon the project. Instead, he will consult with community leaders and incorporate their ideas into a new plan.

Quiñones said her group will invite Taormina and its business partner, Sears property owner Izek Shomof, to another meeting, with a promise to keep an open mind.

Finally, there are other Boyle Heights constituencies that need to be consulted about the vision that Taormina and Shomof are promoting.

At Hollenbeck Park, the homeless community hoped the ambitious plan could 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 native of Mexico who has slept in the park for 10 years.

Estrada struggled with a methamphetamine addiction for years, he said, before becoming sober four years ago, thanks in part to drug treatment services. He now lives in a Project Roomkey Hotel in downtown LA and still visits his friends in the park.

But the homeless understand that not everyone gets their needs.

Viridiana Hernandez, 38, said she was spat on, thrown at bottles and rubbish and set fire to her tent while she slept in Hollenbeck Park.

“Try to get medical help if you’re homeless, or a police officer to respond to a call about violence if you’re homeless. It’s difficult,” she said. “Nobody cares about you.”

Hernandez, who graduated from Garfield High School, said her slide into placement began in 2016. Her husband died and she lost a baby during childbirth. “I was depressed for a long time,” she says. “I didn’t want to work and I was in a lot of emotional pain.”

Aracelly Cauich, a Boyle Heights resident, has made it her mission to help homeless people in the area, 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 end an idea to help the homeless, but not offers help.”

A tall building seen from the street.

A proposal to house thousands of homeless people in a former Sears building drew opposition from Boyle Heights residents.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

But Raquel Roman, executive director of the Dolores Mission at 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 response to the homeless services plan.

While she praised the vision behind the Los Angeles Life Rebuilding Center, her experience makes her question how feasible it is.

Roman said her organization relies on hundreds of workers to deal with 60 unplaced parishioners. They have been successful in small settings, but only about 25% of Proyecto Pastoral clients move from emergency shelter to permanent shelter within a year or two.

“On the one hand, a project of this size may not be feasible for people affected by homelessness,” she said. “But the area needs a lot more resources than are currently being offered.”

One thing everyone seemed to agree on was the need to renovate the Sears campus so that it becomes a common good.

The historic Sears Building, built in 1927, has long served as a landmark, but the property now houses garbage and illegal landfills, said Jonathan Echeverria, chairman of Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council’s Historical Preservation.

Still, Echeverria has encountered numerous homeless people whose mental health issues could pose a risk to community members, he said, and that risk must also be considered.

“I just hope that whatever takes Sears’ place maintains the character of Boyle Heights,” he said. “We have a lot to endure in this community, and anything that comes in should respect the history of the neighborhood and include community input.” Plan to make Boyle Heights Sears a homeless center criticized

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