Proposal to house homeless in Boyle Heights Sears building is scaled back from 10,000 to 2,500 beds

Members of the East Los Angeles Boyle Heights Coalition march in protest of a plan to house homeless at Sears.
Members of the East Los Angeles Boyle Heights Coalition protest a plan to move thousands of unhoused people into the vacant Sears building in Boyle Heights.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The owner of the iconic Sears building in Boyle Heights has scaled back a controversial proposal to house homeless people there, reducing the number of beds from 10,000 to 2,500.

Many community members remained deeply upset by the new proposal, with some likening it to a “concentration camp” or “Manzanar” at a raucous four-hour online meeting Thursday and a protest the day before.

Homeless people from the neighborhood would be first in line for the 2,500 beds, said project spokesperson Leandro Chaya, with senior citizens, LBGTQ+ youths, veterans and families next on the list.


“We have an opportunity to help the Boyle Heights community and the homeless population,” Chayra, son of El Mercadito co-founder Arturo Chayra, said before the meeting. “Everyone says they want to help, but they don’t come up with plans. Here, we have a plan.”

Built in 1927, the Art Deco-style Sears building was once a hub of Boyle Heights, where people purchased everything from baby clothes to prom dresses to refrigerators.

Most Boyle Heights residents had switched their shopping loyalties years ago. Still, the impending closure represents the end of an era for the working-class neighborhood.

April 3, 2021

After years of declining popularity, the store closed last year. Izek Shomof, who bought the 1.6-million-square-foot property in 2013, originally planned to convert it to a mixed-use hipster destination.

Recently, Shomof’s plans shifted. The multimillionaire developer now hopes to make a dent in the region’s homelessness crisis.

But to some in Boyle Heights, the proposal — whether it is for 10,000 or 2,500 beds — is yet another insult to a community they feel has been persistently shortchanged.

To become a reality, the proposal needs the backing of public officials, who so far have given no positive indications.


“As it stands, this proposed project does not have the support of my office,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis said in a written statement.

The iconic Sears building in Boyle Heights.
The iconic Sears building in Boyle Heights. A proposal to house thousands of homeless in the building is on life support after opposition from Boyle Heights residents.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

L.A. City Councilman Kevin de León has yet to be convinced of the “merits of the project” but “would be open” to dialogue, said his chief of staff, Jennifer Barraza.

Bill Taormina, who was a project planner until recently, said Wednesday that the changes were made in response to community feedback, including comments at a June 27 meeting.

In addition to housing fewer residents, the “Los Angeles Life Rebuilding Center” would not be open to walk-ins, operating instead by referral, said Chayra, who has been a social worker with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for 12 years, specializing in homelessness.

In addition to the 2,500 beds, the plan includes the construction of 3,000 units of permanent supportive housing behind the Sears building, which would create more than 1,000 union jobs, Chayra said.


According to Taormina, some elements of the original plan remain, including a retail and convenience store and job training in areas such as food service, security and cosmetology.

A plan to house up to 10,000 homeless people on the former Sears campus in Boyle Heights draws backlash from residents.

July 18, 2022

Some of the parking lot would be converted into green space, and priority would go to Boyle Heights residents for jobs at the center.

Taormina said Shomof would front about $400 million for the renovations and offer the city the option to buy or lease the property

On Wednesday, about 200 people marched outside the Sears building, carrying signs reading “No detention center at Sears,” “A crime against humanity” and “Do not warehouse the homeless.”

“Bill and Izek said that they would come back to the community after the first meeting — where the community was 100% ‘No’ — and talk to us,” said East Los Angeles resident Martha Jimenez, who helped plan the protest along with East Los Angeles Boyle Heights Coalition leader Sofia Quiñones. “They haven’t, because this mega-10,000 homeless project is terrible for the community, and they don’t want to hear that.”

At Thursday’s virtual meeting of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council Planning and Land Use Committee, one speaker, Barbara Martinez, said Boyle Heights should not have to house homeless people from outside the community.

People protest the revised plan to move thousands of unhoused people into the vacant Sears in Boyle Heights.
Members of the East Los Angeles Boyle Heights Coalition protest a plan to move thousands of unhoused people into the vacant Sears building in Boyle Heights.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

“We are sick and tired of people coming and dumping here,” she said.

Chayra had been a member of the neighborhood council for two months and stepped down before the meeting after some complained he had a conflict of interest.

Chayra said a town hall will probably be the next step.