Voluntary homeless shelters shut down due to lack of city license amid growing crisis

The story was co-published with Korea Daily as part of the 2024 Ethnic Media Collaborative, Healing California.


Despite the growing number of homeless Korean Americans in the last few years, there is a gap in the resources available to support and safeguard this population. Language barriers hinder access to mainstream shelters, while Korean American organizations face challenges in functioning due to government authorization, resulting in a lack of financial assistance to help them operate.

In the past month, the Korea Daily has counted at least 55 Korean homeless people, including about 15 in two homeless encampments in Los Angeles Koreatown, 20 at Father Yohan Kim’s homeless shelter, and about 20 at Pastor Moody Ko’s Father’s Table Mission shelter and Victorville center.

This is a phenomenon that was unforeseen eight years ago when the emergence of homeless camps in Koreatown was first reported. Thirty-three homeless tents or tarps were counted in the neighborhood, but no Korean American homeless people were found at that time. 

But as of May 2024, the situation has changed. Homeless Korean Americans have established themselves in at least two homeless encampments in Los Angeles Koreatown. Some of them without tents live with blankets or luggage in front of Korean markets, churches, and other businesses. Since the pandemic, Korean Americans whose economic and social foundations have collapsed are being pushed to the streets.

The majority of the Korean-American homeless individuals interviewed by the Korea Daily were not aware of the city’s homeless policy (Inside Safe LA), which provides temporary housing in motels and hotels. Many of them are either undocumented or do not speak English. Although the city of Los Angeles allocated $1.3 billion, or 10 percent of its total budget last year to address homelessness, these Korean-American individuals have not received any assistance, remaining in a “blind spot.”

The shelters that Korean Americans have created themselves to help homelessness are often operating on a border between legal and illegal. Some of them do not have the necessary licenses (Board and Care) to house homeless people. If a complaint is filed and the Fire Department or Department of Building and Safety inspects the shelters, they are subject to shut down, putting the Korean-American homeless
people back to the streets.

In February 2014, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office filed civil charges against the operator of Agape Home Mission at the time, Pastor Kangwon Lee, for operating without a license and violating basic rights.

Since 2000, Lee had provided housing for Korean-American homeless individuals and those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. As a result of the charges, he was stripped of his license to operate the facility. Now, Lee himself is also homeless, living in a tent in Koreatown.

Korean-American homeless shelter often do not receive government funding because they are not officially registered. As a result, they rely on donations from the Korean-American community and the support of a handful of volunteers. To avoid crackdowns, these facilities also maintain a low profile. The shelter run by Father Yohan Kim, for example, has moved three times after receiving complaints from neighbors.

LA city officials prioritize principles and regulations over efforts to support Korean-American homeless shelters. “Korean-American organizations that run homeless shelters generally operate in poor conditions and often violate government regulations, which is why they cannot receive government support,” explained a Korean-American city government employee who requested anonymity.

“Even if I wanted to ask the mayor or city council for help, I don’t know how to approach them. There is no specialized staff,” said Pastor Moody Ko from Father’s Table Mission.

In response to inquiries about how to support Korean-American-run shelters, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’ office said, “We are committed to overcoming this challenge by prioritizing the development of Korean-language resources and strengthening our collaboration with Korean-American organizations.”

Councilmember Heather Hutt’s office of District 10, which encompasses Koreatown, said, “If you need assistance with homelessness, you can contact a representative by phone at 213-473-7010 and by email at roger.estrada@lacity.org.”

According to “Invisibility as a structural determinant: Mortality outcomes of Asians and Pacific Islanders experiencing homelessness,” published by Santa Clara University Department of Public Health Professor Jamie Chang et al. in January 2023, Asians and Pacific Islanders (APIs) are “invisible and
unacknowledged” in community public discourse and policymaking due to their minority status.

The report found that out of the 1,394 homeless deaths in Santa Clara County between 2011 and 2021, Asians and Pacific Islanders accounted for 87 deaths, or 6.2 percent. The leading causes of death for Asian American homeless individuals were injury and illness, which accounted for approximately 70% of the deaths, in contrast to the leading causes of death for other races, which were drugs and alcohol.

According to the internet publication Crosstown, a total of 2,374 homeless people died in Los Angeles County in 2022, more than double the 1,129 in 2018.

Father Yohan Kim wishes for shelters where the homeless become a family

Man's face

Yohan Kim

Courtesy Yohan Kim

“The first person I met, he said his business failed. He sent all his family to Korea and he fell off a bridge and tried to die, but he didn’t. And there’s another Korean homeless person sleeping on the street. I got everyone together, bought them breakfast at McDonald’s, and asked, ‘What do you need most?’ They said they need a bus token because it’s so cold after sleeping on the ground and if they can take the bus in the morning, they can warm up.”

Father Yohan Kim first met Korean American homeless people in 2008 while distributing free meals at his church. This led him to gather a group of Korean American homeless people who had been living in hiding and form a family-like community. It wasn’t something he planned, but it has been over a decade since he started living together with them.

Today, Kim’s concern is the growing number of Korean American homeless people asking for help. “In the past three years, 11 people have passed away at this shelter,” said Kim. “Most of them are old and sick and have lost their ability to work. It is important to help them live with other homeless people in the same situation as friends and family as much as possible. The best way to do that is to help them spend the rest of their lives while having fun at the shelter.”

It wonders if it will be difficult to raise the $4,000 a month needed to operate the shelter. “With the help of friends, acquaintances, and church members, it’s not a big problem for us to live,” Kim said, adding, “but there are still many Korean Americans who sleep in their cars, those who live in tents or under tarps keep calling to come to the shelter.”

“Korean American homeless people are afraid of other homeless shelters in LA. I wish we could find more housing where we can keep them together as a family.”

Fore more information on supporting Kim’s shelter, call (323)244-8810.

This project is supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and is part of “Healing California,” a yearlong reporting Ethnic Media Collaborative venture with print, online and broadcast outlets across California.