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Residents protest proposed veterans housing complex

DOWNEY — Nearly 300 residents from South Gate and a few from Downey berated Downey Mayor Sean Ashton and Los Angeles County representative Ivan Sulic for a plan to build a temporary affordable housing facility for poor veterans on a lot less than one block away from homes. 

The location at stake is the American Legion Post No. 723, at 11269 Garfield Ave., across the street from an animal shelter and maintenance facilities operated by the county, but a few steps from the neighborhood on Gardendale Street.

The property, owned by the county, is surrounded by a parking lot and is attached to an empty lot with tall trees at the corner of Gardendale and Garfield Avenue, within Downey city limits.  

South Gate residents fear that veterans with mental illness housed in the facility may carry weapons that would jeopardize their safety and that of children who walk the sidewalk.

Andrea Paulino, who attended a packed town hall gathering at Downey’s Columbia Memorial Space Center Nov. 15 with her husband Michael, complained the proposed housing is in their neighborhood and would impact their safety and quality of life. 

“We prefer not to call it a shelter, but a facility,” Paulino said. “It’s one and a half miles away from a [similar] city of South Gate facility. We don’t believe our neighborhood should have the burden of both facilities.” 

Ashton said the state requires all cities to build affordable housing for veterans and voiced support for the new facility, along with Councilmen Fernando Vasquez and Rick Rodríguez and City Manager Gil Livas.

“Everything I’ve been told is that it will be for veterans housing. I’m not going to change that,” Ashton said.

 Attendees drilled Ashton on lax police presence near the site, in addition to dim streetlights that make the area overly dark at night. 

Martha Camacho Rodríguez, a Downey resident who has been elected to serve as a member of the Central Basin Municipal Water District Board of Directors, suggested building a library branch “that serves our children.”

Ashton insisted that the city will not fund the facility and would only intervene on its design and configuration. 

For his part, Sulic said the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved the demolition of the current structure Nov. 14, and revealed that the American Legion has failed to “pay rent for many years.”

He added that on-site construction is “not set in stone,” and opened the possibility that homeless veterans would be tenants in a structure with no more than 80 units.

“We went to City Hall and signed a memorandum of understanding,” Sulic said. “Housing will not be solely for the homeless, but 100 percent of the tenants will be veterans. This will not be a shelter, where people come and go, come and go.”

Sulic stressed the overwhelming need for housing in the county, and warned that many veterans are “on the edge of going homeless.” He underscored that the county will not let blight and crime override the area and told the crowd each veteran will receive a medical evaluation before being accepted in the facility. 

“The County of Los Angeles has its right to develop its property, and we are executing that right,” Sulic said. 

The comment prompted an avalanche of criticism from residents, who chastised the county for being authoritarian and unwilling to understand their points of view. 

“We need to get [Supervisor Janice] Hahn and Hilda Solis to help us on what we’ll do,” said Jane Denial, a retired school teacher. “We want somebody who looks at all that is happening in the area. We are not against veterans. We are here about the location. 

“This is a Downey and South Gate problem. Whatever happens there will feed over, and you’ll be responsible because your name is all written on it. We want to know the developer is listening to our needs.” 

Mare Watt, a lifelong South Gate resident who grew up near Hollydale Regional Park, six blocks away from the proposed facility, said a meeting with Hahn would clarify whether the project will or won’t happen. 

“From homeless to homeless veterans to affordable housing for vets. All that got us all riled up,” said Watt, who carried a stroller. “We don’t fear veterans, or homeless. It’s that nobody gave us the breakdown of what really is going on.”

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer