The Port of Los Angeles, ‘Is not in the Homeless Business’

AT LENGTH-Frequent readers of this column will remember Port Executive Director Gene Seroka’s rejection of the neighborhood council proposal to use two port properties, parking lots E and F, to temporarily house the area’s unhoused residents.

He gave three reasons: First, they are being used as overflow for the San Pedro Fishmarket and as a “laydown site” for construction at the Ports O’ Call site — construction that really has not started yet.  

Second, they’re being used for Port Police training — this may be true, but it’s not like there’s a shortage of vacant parking lots at the harbor these days. 

And third, it’s too polluted to allow habitation — this last point is contested territory.  The Regional Water Quality Control Board’s report on the matters says the contamination is under the landscaped area west of the paved portion of the site, a point confirmed by Chris Cannon, the environmental director at the port. This means that the parking lot is not contaminated.

At the May 18 Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council meeting, Augie Bezmalinovich defended Seroka’s position as one of the port’s public relations deputies by repeatedly interrupting me when I clearly had the floor speaking on this item. The chair did not call him out of order. His ultimate argument though was that the port is not in the “housing the homeless business” but is in the “cargo business!” This is clearly more the true objection than all the other excuses.

pollution.At the time, this ended the discussion and the motion I was supporting lost narrowly as some of the council had tired of the bullying and left the meeting.

However, I have this rebuttal:

The Port of Los Angeles is also not in the air pollution control business, but because of its activities over many years various agencies are forcing them to address and correct their historic business practices and invest millions of dollars on clean air technologies. I might also add that because of the port’s lax oversight of and the bad practices by its tenants, it is now financially responsible for tens of millions of dollars and many acres of toxic clean up.

The same way the Port of Los Angeles is not in the environmental mitigation business, they are now because of public pressure and legal issues. Let us not forget that the port is also not in the tourism business, per se, yet they are just now in the process of spending the last $50 million on the waterfront promenade and town square plaza, both of which address tourism.

Tourism is not counted in TEUs. So much for the, “we’re only in the cargo business” excuse.

Clearly, this port and the Harbor Commission understand they have bigger obligations to the surrounding community and to the people of the State of California than just the cargo business. Air quality, water pollution, economic/environmental justice, toxic clean up and local economic benefit via tourism are in fact policies of our port that arguably don’t go far enough. But they still admit responsibility for them.

The current disagreement is about expanding their still narrow perspective to address the greater good of the local community. What is best for the people of the state and what does it mean to be good community partners in this time of crisis over the homeless issue? Even the State Lands Commission is reviewing the overarching State Tidelands Trust doctrine, which affects all of the state owned lands. And because of their policy review the people surrounding the twin harbors of the San Pedro Bay need to be asking if this is enough.

Betty Yee, California State Controller, who sits on this commission wrote:

When the Commission met [Feb. 24], we adopted our new Strategic Plan that acknowledges flexibility and adaptability as we embrace an evolving Public Trust Doctrine that reflects changing societal values and needs. In this spirit, what you have raised with the Port of LA does have Commission staff thinking about how to address these changing needs.

Clearly in times of crisis like the last year, attitudes can change, policies can shift, new perspectives can emerge. It is in moments with challenges like these  that we see whether our leaders have the vision to see these changes. Right now, at the local level, it appears not.

For those who don’t understand the history, California became a state on Sept. 9, 1850, and thereby acquired nearly 4 million acres of land underlying the state’s navigable and tidal waterways, known as “sovereign lands.” These tidelands and submerged lands, equal in size to Connecticut and Delaware combined, are overseen by the California State Lands Commission. They are entrusted to local municipal entities like Los Angeles and Long Beach by legislation.

 The neighborhood councils are not asking the port to shoulder the entire expense alone nor to even manage a homeless encampment, for there are other entities who could do this. They ask that the port merely donate a small portion of land on a temporary basis for what is considered an emergency situation. The larger issue of what the impacts of industrialized ports have on our community and our environment is a complex one that is worth considering closely.

The port complex and businesses who operate there are direct beneficiaries of our national trade policies, which have over the last 40 years been exporting jobs and importing an ever increasing quantity of foreign products. See the recent stats in our news briefs column.

Over the same period, tens of thousands of good paying blue-collar jobs have vanished from Los Angeles and during this same period we have seen homelessness grow. Now I haven’t seen the study which proves the correlation between the two, but I do believe that there is a nexus between how profitable our ports are with how desperately poor the homeless have become because of job losses.

 I would also like to remind all community members that Bezmalinovich is only the messenger and not the decision maker. There is still a public process for the redress of grievances, and we as neighborhood representatives of our various constituencies have a legitimate right, if not obligation, to represent those grievances no matter how unpopular they may be with the Harbor Department of Los Angeles.

His flippant dismissal of the influence of neighborhood councils as being unable to take positions contrary to Port of Los Angeles is insulting. I remind all concerned that it was just such a dismissal of community concerns by the port that launched the years long legal battle over the China Shipping terminal, which ended up costing the port some $65 million in a legal settlement. The arrogance of public officials to not negotiate in good faith with community partners is not only expensive, but it costs in the loss of goodwill.

As Gang-Related Shootings Rise, Parents of Murdered Youth March for Peace.


(James Preston Allen is the founding publisher of Random Lengths News. He has been involved in the Los Angeles Harbor Area community for more than 40 years.)Photo abovePhoto from Google Maps