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Olvera Street merchants question Garcetti's plan to shelter homeless nearby

Olvera Street merchants question Garcetti's plan to shelter homeless nearby
David Solorzano, manager at La Luz del Dia restaurant at Olvera Street, asks a panhandler to leave Wednesday. Merchants are upset about the mayor's plan to house homeless people in trailers at a nearby city parking lot. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Ginette Rondeau says she wants the city to help the homeless people who live near her Olvera Street store, looking for food and sleeping on the sidewalks.

But Rondeau and dozens of other vendors are critical of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s plan for a new temporary homeless shelter blocks from the tourist destination. More homeless people will come, hurting business for the merchants who sell ponchos, colorful dresses and trinkets to busloads of tourists and schoolchildren, Rondeau said.

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She questioned why El Pueblo de Los Angeles — the historic area that houses Olvera Street — was picked for the 60-person shelter, rather than another location popular with tourists.

“How come Chinatown isn’t having this?” Rondeau said. “Or Little Tokyo?”

The City Council is expected to approve Garcetti’s plan Friday to put trailers on a city-owned parking lot at Arcadia and Alameda streets for up to three years. In addition to beds, the trailers would offer toilets, showers, mental health services and other aid.

If successful, the facility could be a model for shelters throughout the city, according to Garcetti’s office.

The Olvera Street vendors are a small, vocal group, but their opposition shows the challenges city leaders face in persuading neighborhoods to accept new shelter and housing amid the homelessness crisis.

At a contentious meeting Tuesday of merchants, representatives from Garcetti’s office and Councilman Jose Huizar, the vendors blamed homeless people who live around El Pueblo for the area’s unsanitary bathrooms, drug use and theft.

They also said individuals living at the proposed trailers would hang out at El Pueblo during the day.

George Sherman, who has worked for 30 years as a vendor, told Huizar, “You’re playing with our livelihood, with our only source of income to support our families.”

Garcetti representative Brian Buchner defended the plan, telling vendors it wouldn’t bring more homeless people into the area, but would help get people off the street and into housing.

El Pueblo was picked for the pilot program, he said, because of the high concentration of homeless people. The last homeless count tallied nearly 200 people in the area.

Sitting on a bench at El Pueblo’s plaza Thursday, Isabel Cruz scratched at her graying hair because she has lice, she said. Cruz, 59, is homeless and said she liked the proposed shelter plan.

“It’s better than living on the streets,” Cruz said, adding that she was robbed of two suitcases near El Pueblo this year.

Officials say the proposal has the support of several local nonprofits. Still, responding to the vendors’ opposition, Huizar said Wednesday that the city would review the trailers at El Pueblo after six months.

Its success is important if the city wants to add similar trailers in other neighborhoods, he said.

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“If this fails, if we don’t do it right here and we slip again, it’s going to have huge consequences for the rest of the city and skid row,” Huizar said.

Officials say the trailers would cost about $2 million to build and $1.3 million to operate annually.

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