Recently Korea Daily interviewed United Way of Greater Los Angeles’ Chris Ko about homelessness and the recent developments in finding solutions for shelter locations in Koreatown. As luck would have it, Ko was on his way to Korea where he helps lead discussions with Honor Society Members of United Way of Greater Los Angeles. He was able to provide this interview to Korea Daily during his 11-hour flight. Here is the translation of their story.

KD: Why is a Los Angeles temporary homeless shelter important?

CK: We need to do three things to end homelessness: 1) help people get off the streets quickly, 2) help people stay off the streets permanently, and 3) keep new people from landing on the streets.

KD: What was your feeling when you were moving towards an agreement, if I may ask?

CK: As a Korean immigrant and someone who has been fighting to improve homelessness policies for the last seven years, this was important to me. I understood there would be strong feelings on both sides, but I was also hopeful because I knew there was something all parties had in common: we all wanted something that would actually make the existing situation on our streets better and not worse. I’m glad we got to the point where we were able to listen to one another’s real concerns.

KD: Many people say that the agreement that was reached is reasonable. What’s your personal opinion?

CK: This is an excellent agreement and a much better solution than what we began with.

Again, the credit goes to both sides for working together to create it. There is no such things as a “perfect site,” but Hoover and Wilshire is about as close as you can get. The census tract it’s in has the highest number of people on the street, in tents, and in encampments in all of Council District 10. And it is still public land, so it saves costs too and shows the City being creative with its property.

Plus, this agreement includes more than just the Wilshire and Hoover site. It includes two more emergency solutions outside Koreatown: another temporary bridge housing site on Herb Wesson’s office parking lot plus vehicle shelter programs (safe parking) further south in Council District 10, where vehicular homelessness has been a major problem. I’m also really glad that it creates more permanent, affordable housing that will serve seniors, which is a population that’s faced increasing financial pressures recently. And I think it’s exciting that 682 Vermont will go from being a parking lot to a beautiful new building with community space/use on the ground floor.

As much as I thought we could create something better together, if I’m honest, the final proposal exceeds what I thought was possible.

KD: Do you think a temporary homeless shelter is necessary for our city, and if so, why?

CK: It is a critical piece of the system: we need to build to end homelessness. If you think of the system as a hospital, these bridge housing facilities are the emergency room. It is a place people can go to receive initial treatment and be connected to a more permanent resource. Of course, the emergency room is not the final destination, and thankfully, with the passage of Proposition HHH, we are constructing the places for people with disabling conditions to go permanently. But that will take time, and this gives us a chance for people to move inside during that time.

KD: How exactly will the shelter help the homeless population? Some people are wondering if it will truly be effective.

CK: Bridge housing provides a place for people to go, recover, and work on the next step. It is impossible to work on getting a job or begin preparing your housing application when you have no address or place to safely store your belongings. And because this will be by invitation only, residents will not have to leave early morning at 6 a.m., and there will not be long lines around the building to get in. Even for people who have had no interest in going to traditional shelters, this will be a more attractive option, especially since it’s already in the same neighborhood where they’re sleeping outside.

KD: How can the community get involved when the shelter is ready?

CK: Community support and involvement makes a huge difference in the success of a project like this, and the two oversight committees provide a way for community members to continue suggesting solutions and ideas.

But there will be more direct ways to get involved too: groups can help make welcome packages, serve meals, offer classes and create programs, like art therapy for residents. Medical professionals and counselors can also be a huge help in providing volunteer services, and I know that is something being actively explored.   

United Way L.A. is also researching where we can contribute funding to make this project successful, including supports that will help more people choose to come inside from the park and also help them move out to a permanent place. The community can join us in contributing funds or resources to help and also make the site even more beautiful.

KD: Some people experience fear around around homeless people. What would you tell them?

CK: Safety is an important consideration for everyone involved, including our homeless neighbors. People don’t often realize that homeless people are actually the victim of much theft and violence themselves.

Living on the street is an incredibly stressful situation, and it’s hard for anyone who goes without a good night’s sleep to be themselves. Think about the last time that you were stuck at an airport overnight and how frustrating that was. That’s why it’s so important to create places where people can come inside and have a safe and comfortable place to sleep.

KD: What is United Way and what is its primary goal?

CK: Ever since 1922, United Way of Greater Los Angeles has worked to improve the quality of life in Los Angeles County by coordinating and deploying the resources of community groups, business people, advocates, nonprofits and the government to create better solutions.

Ten years ago, we began focusing on a few major issues—homelessness being one of them. Our focus is on making sure all residents of L.A. have a good job, a high quality education and a safe place to sleep. We are not a housing developer, a shelter operator or service provider. Instead, we bring people together to work on issues that are too big for any one organization or person to solve on their own. We work to research solutions, improve policies and invest funds together. We’ve seen incredible success by working in this way—permanently housing over 40,000 persons and reducing veteran homelessness by over 40%.

United Way is also an international organization with affiliates in many countries including Korea. The United Way there is called the Community Chest of Korea, and we recently launched a dedicated campaign together called One Heart Two Loves. This campaign allows Korean-American donors to address pressing issues in both L.A. and Korea with one gift. Beyond serving more Koreans, our hope is to raise the voice and stature of Korean-Americans in L.A.’s philanthropic community.

KD: Are there any thoughts you’d like to share with the Korean community?

CK: I understand the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into making Koreatown what it

is today. It is something Koreans across the world are rightfully proud of having built together.

I truly believe what was created together in this agreement can make Koreatown even stronger. How a community takes care of its most vulnerable residents is the true test of progress, and as communities across L.A. County build more bridge and supportive housing, I hope Koreatown can serve as a model.

United Way brings people together to work on issues that are too big for any one organization or person to solve on their own. We believe true transformation in our communities comes from both individual efforts and long-term systemic change. United Way of Greater Los Angeles and our partners are dedicated to working on all fronts to bring everyone in to change L.A. County for good.