Then, during a public hearing with the LA City Planning Commission over the same project, a woman who was part of the YIMBY group whispered to me that the whole meeting was set up against poor people: Why else would the city hold a hearing in Van Nuys—a 40-minute drive from Venice—at 8 a.m. on a Thursday? “The earlier it is, the less supporters will come because poor people have to work,” she said. “Those people,” she continued, nodding at the housing project opponents sitting up front, “they’re rich. They make six to seven figures, so they’ll have no problem taking the time off to come here.” But I knew housing opponents who couldn’t make it to the meeting for the same reasons, and I didn’t believe that the city was intentionally trying to shut out poor people. In fact, the city commissioners all expressed sympathy for the homeless, and one divulged that he too was once homeless.
As a reporter, I heard both the YIMBY and NIMBY sides. And as a fellow LA resident, I empathize with both sides. Housing availability is a critical issue in our city, and the disparities between certain neighborhoods are jarring: While my neighborhood is filled with multistory apartment buildings and traffic noises and graffiti, certain other neighborhoods are checkered with beautiful, single-unit family homes, manicured lawns, and lush trees. When I read about those affluent neighborhoods protesting against new housing developments or metro stops in their area, I feel annoyed: Why do they get to preserve their small-town charm while we deal with the brunt of the traffic and parking issues?
Over the years, I’ve seen the number of homeless go up in my city. They’ve been camping in my neighborhood. Last summer, when the city tried to build a temporary 65-bed shelter for the homeless in Koreatown (a neighborhood next to mine), hundreds of residents—many of them Korean-American immigrants who had worked hard to build their own community—gathered to protest the shelter, saying it was too close to businesses and schools. The Korean-American community harbors decadeslong grievances against LA officials for continuously sidelining its people in important decisions, so it took this recent top-down decision from the city as another slap in the face.
Though I personally felt that the Koreatown reaction to the shelter was overblown, I could also understand the residents’ fear and frustration: The 2.7-square-mile neighborhood has dealt with 400 homeless individuals living on its streets for a while now, and the proposed shelter would inevitably attract more. Everyone in LA knows how badly the city bungled with Skid Row, the notorious homeless village downtown. Nobody wants another Skid Row in his backyard.
I should know. Almost every day I have to hop over poop and pee and vomit and trash on the sidewalks. It’s easy enough to feed and befriend the homeless in other neighborhoods. But when they’re trashing your own backyard, it’s not so easy to feel the compassion.