Asian Americans protest homeless housing near upscale Arcadia, sparking suburban battle

The caravan of BMWs, Audis and Teslas broke the tranquility of an overcast Saturday morning in an affluent Arcadia neighborhood, where homes sit neatly behind manicured lawns.

Out of the vehicles emerged dozens of sign-carrying and slogan-yelling protesters with one destination in mind: the home of City Councilwoman April Verlato, who supported a plan to build shed-like structures for homeless people.

The protesters held up banners in English and Chinese that read: “We need a safe place to live. No Tiny Shelters!”

“April Verlato needs to understand that tiny homes are not the answer for Arcadia,” said Fenglan “Juli” Liu, a resident of neighboring Temple City who organized the protest on Facebook. “They’re prisons that no homeless person wants to stay in. I know. I’ve asked them.”

Away from the streets of downtown L.A.’s skid row and gentrifying Echo Park, the debate over tiny homes in Arcadia offers a stark lesson in the challenges of finding shelter for unhoused people.

Over the last decade, Los Angeles County’s homeless problem has spread from urban hot spots to the suburbs. While Arcadia has relatively few homeless people, the idea of providing them a place to live is stoking anger and fear in some quarters, compassion in others.

The battle is notable for another reason. Many who have taken up the cause to stop homeless housing are Asian American — the latest demonstration, after similar controversies in Irvine and Koreatown, of how Asians have mobilized around the issue.

Yet in this San Gabriel Valley city, some of the staunchest supporters of the tiny home plan are Asian American students from Arcadia High School.

“Maybe it’s a generational thing,” 17-year-old Becky Chen said. “But I feel like we’ve done our homework, and so many of the people against tiny homes haven’t.”

Asian immigrants and Asian Americans, who are 62% of the city’s roughly 59,000 residents, have taken leading roles on both sides of the debate. People have used social media platforms such as Facebook and Weibo, popular among Chinese immigrants, to attack one another.

At meetings and forums, some tiny homes opponents have asked the City Council to authorize the Arcadia police to drive homeless people out of town.

Police Chief Roy Nakamura said his officers will remove unhoused people from private property, stop those committing criminal offenses and offer motel vouchers. Nakamura, who is of Japanese descent and is the first Asian American police chief in Arcadia’s history, added, “Homelessness is not a crime.”

The controversy began in February after the Arcadia City Council voted to study installing a Tiny Shelter Project funded by grants from Measure H, the Los Angeles County Homeless Initiative. If approved, the one-year pilot program would house up to 30 of the area’s growing homeless population, which is estimated at just over 100 people.

The 15 tiny homes — each 8 by 8 feet in size — would have Wi-Fi, and occupants would have access to food, showers, laundry and job placement services. There would be security, and the structures would be placed in an unincorporated area next to the city, away from more affluent neighborhoods and business districts.

The location selected is near Peck Park, about five miles from City Hall and around the corner from a strip club.

“I don’t think anywhere else in Arcadia would have been approved,” Verlato said. “I mean, residents didn’t protest the strip club, didn’t protest the objectification of women, so I didn’t think they would have problems with a temporary homeless shelter in the area.”

Jennifer Gnu and her daughters, Michelle, 9, left, and Isabelle, 6, join dozens of others protesting a proposed tiny homes project next to Arcadia.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A May 6 public forum on the Tiny Shelter Project drew hundreds of questions from participants, and subsequent council meetings have dragged on for hours with people lining up to speak.

Supporters of the project said it wouldn’t cost the city any money and is the right thing to do. Opponents said the city has not been transparent and argued the homes would increase crime and drug use.

A well-organized group called the Arcadia Safety Guardians, primarily consisting of Asian Americans, gathered around 150 residents to protest outside City Hall before the council’s last two meetings. The group, founded by 20-year resident Linda Xu, started an online petition against the project, garnering 3,700 signatures as of Thursday.

The homeless population has grown significantly in Arcadia, according to some counts. In 2018, three people were tallied in city reports. That number grew to 77 in 2019 and 106 in 2020, according to information the city submitted to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

Arcadia City Manager Dominic Lazzaretto said during a town hall in early May that the city “started taking the annual homeless count seriously” in 2018.

That year, Verlato saw three homeless people sleeping near her office on Huntington Drive. She asked city officials to redo the count, skeptical that she had just glimpsed Arcadia’s entire homeless population. That number was amended to 15.

“Tiny homes is about offering people a little bit of dignity, a little bit of hope and autonomy,” she said.

When some students supporting the project showed up at the protest outside the council member’s home, some older residents were upset.

“I want to know where the parents of these students are?” asked Susan Gao, an Arcadia Safety Guardians member who is Chinese American. “This was very disrespectful of these students to speak against the elders.”

The group of Arcadia High students and recent alums was accused by some residents of being radicalized because of ties to the national Sunrise Movement, which has advocated for defunding the police and for supporting the Green New Deal.

“I do think it’s hilarious,” Becky said, “that the people calling us out think housing the houseless is ‘communism.’”

Sumie Okazaki, a New York University professor of applied psychology, said the generational rift is not surprising.

Older Asian immigrants and Asian Americans often believe in an idealized meritocracy and see their hard work and struggles as a pathway to success, Okazaki said. According to that worldview, homeless people are “not living up to their abilities.”

On the other hand, younger Asian Americans are more likely to believe that there are certain factors, such as racism and inequitable power structures, that can lead to homelessness, Okazaki said.

Gao and the teens did find some common ground: They criticized the Arcadia City Council for being late to translate material related to the Tiny Shelter Project into Chinese. Gao also disagreed with the protest at Verlato’s home, believing the action was over the top.

That day, the group led by Liu had driven a homeless man to the protest. He stood at the end of the line of demonstrators and briefly chanted against the tiny homes. The man refused to talk to a Los Angeles Times reporter and sat silently through much of the event.

Verlato posted on Instagram that she was “beyond disgusted” by the tactic. During a City Council meeting, she criticized the use of “homeless people like they are zoo animals.”

One of those unsheltered people in Arcadia is Benny Lozano, a 64-year-old who uses a wheelchair and who sleeps outside a thrift store.

“Maybe once a week, the police come to check to see how I’m doing and if I’m not on drugs or drunk,” Lozano said. “When they see I’m not, they don’t bother me, and sometimes they give me motel coupons.”

The native of Acapulco, Mexico, said he once was employed in canneries in Alaska and Hawaii and lived comfortably until crippling arthritis in both legs forced him out of work. He eventually gravitated to an unincorporated area next to Arcadia to be near his mother, who lives in a nursing home in El Monte.

He laughed when asked if he would sleep in a tiny home.

“If I had a chance to live in a tiny home, I would do it,” Lozano said. “It’s better than sleeping on the floor.”

For a little over two years, Rodney Cabral, 38, has lived in Arcadia under bridges, in an abandoned parking lot and behind building spaces where tents, torn mattresses and broken office furniture offer unhoused people some comfort.

The El Monte native said he started living on the street shortly after his mother died in 2018 and he lost his job as a cashier at Arcadia’s 99 Cents Only store.

Cabral said he has had job opportunities denied because he has no home address, and the pandemic shutdown only worsened things.

He said that opponents and proponents of the project have taken photos and interviewed many of the area’s homeless to make their case.

“Some have said we have mental illness, and it’s kind of hard not to when you’re unemployed and depressed,” Cabral said.

Cabral said he wouldn’t mind living in a tiny home, though he’s wary of restrictions such as curfews. But what he really wants is a job so he can pay his own rent.

Mayor Pro Tem Paul Cheng said he was hopeful Arcadia could find a solution and avoid a situation in which a federal judge could mandate terms for dealing with local homelessness, as Judge David O. Carter is doing in Los Angeles.

In February, Arcadia passed an ordinance that prohibited homeless people from “camping” between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. in the city — except in the case of rain. Many of the area’s homeless people had already been sleeping in an unincorporated area next to Arcadia.

“What you’re seeing in this debate is the rise of Asian American politics,” said Cheng, who is Taiwanese American. “Throw in the rise of Asian hate crimes and this pandemic, and you’re seeing a lot of Asian Americans finding strength in numbers.”

The protests seemed to have found their mark.

Last Tuesday, the City Council voted unanimously to hold multiple forums on homelessness within 120 days — in English and Mandarin — and to create a citizen’s committee to investigate ways to house people who are unsheltered. The vote put an indefinite hold on the installation of the tiny homes.

“In the end, we’re going to listen to our constituents,” Cheng said. “They have the power.”

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