Plans to open a winter shelter in Silverado Park within the next week were placed on hold after more than 100 incensed Westside residents—children, teachers and parents—overwhelmed a special community meeting Thursday night to voice fervent opposition.
“City staff will bring back the feedback that was shared last night” to “make a recommendation on how to best address homelessness during this state of emergency,” according to a city statement given to the Long Beach Post on Friday morning.
City staff are expected to convene early next week to discuss the shelter, which was originally planned to occupy the Silverado Park gym from as early as next week to the end of May.
Residents said community input was not sought for a decision that would rob the district of the only green space and gym for families and nearby schools, as well as pose a safety risk to an already disadvantaged area.
“I’m out here because the city made a decision and they did not inform the community,” said Jerlene Tatum, a Westside resident who helped organize a protest before the Thursday evening West Long Beach Association meeting. “The fence went up, and people thought the gym was going to be renovated.”
Tatum led over a hundred sign-wielding protestors as they joined hands to wrap around the perimeter of the fenced off gym in 49-degree weather.
“You wouldn’t want to be sleeping out in the wind and rain in these temperatures,” Jennifer Rice Epstein, spokesperson for Long Beach’s Department of Health and Human Services, told the Post before the meeting. “That’s what we’re focused on here.”
Through the course of an energetic—and at times chaotic—three-hour meeting and protest, city officials were unable to deliver their presentation as residents levied vitriol at them. Throughout the night, many demanded, “Where’s Rex?” in reference to Mayor Rex Richardson, and booed District 7 Councilman Roberto Uranga, who represents the area, when he addressed the crowd.
Richardson did not immediately respond to the Post for comment on Friday.
Health Department Director Kelly Colopy took the podium shortly after the meeting started, but her presentation was cut short.
“Listen, you want to know why we picked Silverado? Stop yelling,” she told the crowd. “You will get no answers if you don’t listen.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, please shut up for a minute,” yelled John Cross, president of the West Long Beach Association.
But resident voices only became louder, until finally, officials conceded, pivoting to a public comment session. Dozens of residents, many of whom live near the park, lined up to speak.
“I’m standing here because there are schools in this area and our children are important to us,” said Doris Wilson, who works for the Long Beach Unified School District. “I’ve lived in this neighborhood since ‘76, and the city really do not care about the Westside.”
Many took issue with the showers at the park’s community pool, which would be used for those housed in the shelter. Officials assured attendees that the showers would be cleaned in between uses, but residents were displeased with that response.
The would-be shelter’s proximity to a playground was also a point of contention, because residents said it could violate the “kid zone” ordinance the City Council passed last year that does not allow adults at or near playgrounds unless they are accompanying children. Previously, a city spokesperson told the Post it would not violate that ordinance. Still, residents expressed concern.
“I’m shaking because I have 15-, 14- and 12-year-old kids,” Annafe Lobedecis said through tears when she took the microphone to address Colopy and city staff. “Four o’clock in the morning, I’m working eight hours, and my husband is working as well. Nobody is in our home. How can our place be safe if you’re doing this? I don’t want it here. I live in front of the park. I’m sorry, I’m shaking.”
At least a dozen educators and twice as many parents who were in attendance Thursday also said the gym is vital especially for students of John Muir Elementary school, which does not have its own gym.
“We finally have a team and a place to play,” Michelle Fennell, a teacher at John Muir Elementary whose 11-year-old son currently uses the gym for basketball practice, told the Post. “We made the playoffs for the first time, and the playoffs start next week, but we’re going to be out of the gym.”
After she spoke to the crowd, Parks, Recreation and Marine Department Director Brent Dennis said: “That information about your basketball team—that’s great news. That’s brand new news for us, so we’ll make sure that the gymnasium is available.”
His response was met with an angry eruption of shouting from the large room.
Residents repeatedly echoed on Thursday that their neighborhood is already disproportionately outfitted with homeless services, including the Multi-Service Center, which serves as the city’s headquarters for homeless services.
Attendees demanded that the city consider other neighborhoods that have not historically provided a similar level of support for people experiencing homelessness, like Belmont Shore or El Dorado Park. They also suggested the use of an abandoned Walmart or new housing developments in Downtown.
“The Westside at large—we are almost forgotten,” Debora Bailey, a Westside resident since 1976, told the Post. “I just wish that we were considered just like the other parts of the city. … We’re here, we pay taxes, we deserve the same as Downtown, Shoreline.”
Most of those who took the microphone demanded answers to the same question: Why did the city fail to garner input from the neighborhood?
“Because of the urgency, the city did not conduct sufficient outreach,” Uranga told the Post in an email on Thursday.
The move to establish a second winter shelter after opening the first at the former Community Hospital property in December is just the latest example of how city officials have scrambled to respond to the recent rise in homelessness.
Nearly two months ago, the city declared a state of emergency on homelessness, which officials said would help Long Beach address the issue more efficiently.
“The Emergency Declaration tasked city staff to act quickly to identify locations and open an emergency shelter in the interest of getting people sheltered before the anticipated unprecedented cold-snap,” Uranga told the Post.
In that time, the city has deployed one mobile access vehicle to bring some intake services to Downtown, and officials announced that 33 tiny homes would be built in the parking lot of the Westside’s MSC—but immediate shelter space remains scarce.
Officials said the Silverado Park shelter would add 84 beds, which more than double the city’s current winter shelter capacity. Meals, showers and portable restrooms would be available at the site.
Throughout Thursday evening, dozens of concerns were raised, but ultimately, residents demanded transparency and for the city to commit to consider moving the temporary shelter elsewhere, giving an already burdened community some reprieve.
At the tail end of the meeting, resident Soraya Marchado-Powell, with microphone in hand, turned the room’s attention back on Uranga.
“You are saying that you will reconsider and there’s a possibility of taking this back?” Marchado-Powell asked.
“I heard you, and I’m taking it back with me,” Uranga replied.
Officials will reconvene early next week and are expected to address the Westside’s strong response, Joy Contreras, a spokesperson for the city, told the Post.
“… Whether the shelter proceeds or we make a different plan … at this point, we’re committed to going back and having another conversation,” Paul Duncan, director of the Long Beach Homeless Services Bureau, told the Post at the end of Thursday’s meeting.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct which city officials will meet next week.