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Downtown L.A. hotel housing homeless people prompts lawsuit

Signs of active campus life can be seen throughout the Academy of Media Arts.

School projects are still posted on the walls. Books are scattered on the table. Apples are left uneaten in the cafeteria.

The students are missing. The roughly 50 ninth- through 12th-graders, many from low-income black and Latino families, were forced to scramble when their private high school in downtown Los Angeles abruptly closed on Jan. 15.

The school occupies the first three floors of the Los Angeles Grand Hotel, which has been used as temporary housing for hundreds of homeless Angelenos since 2021. The school's founder, Dana Hammond, filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the building's owner in January, saying the presence of so many homeless people had made the campus unsafe and forced it to close.

A syringe sits on the ground outside the Academy of Media Arts at the LA Grand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

In the interview, he also criticized Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass for repeatedly extending the lease on city property for the Inside Safe transitional housing program.

“Human feces on the sidewalk. The smell of urine wafts through the campus. “Inside Safe'' tenants riot. Break-in by “Inside Safe” tenant. Drug paraphernalia found on campus. 'Inside Safe' tenant found in trash can,'' read a comment left on a classroom whiteboard.

Asked about Hammond's claims, Bass school spokeswoman Clara Karger said in a statement that the city has installed additional fencing, conducted site visits to address the school's concerns, and worked with school security. He said that security at the grounds had been strengthened in response. emergency call.

When Hammond signed a lease to move the school to LA Grand in 2022, it was the culmination of nearly two decades of work.

His school, which started in a church in South Los Angeles, now has its own space where students have access to state-of-the-art equipment.

After aggressive recruitment efforts increased the number of students to 250, a mass exodus began and the number of enrolled students decreased to around 50. By mid-January, Hammond said, she was unable to pay her $100,000 monthly rent.

A report compiled by school security and reviewed by The Times describes incidents involving hotel residents. They include a man who threatened to fight security guards outside the school gates. A woman exposes herself to students at 9:30am. Another woman was found lying naked in the back of the school, where she threatened to “shoot and stab” security guards if they confronted her. A man who broke into the school from behind.

Media Arts Academy principal Dana Hammond stands in the school's outdoor amphitheater.

Media Arts Academy principal Dana Hammond stands in the school's outdoor amphitheater.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

An empty classroom with chairs on desks at the Academy of Media Arts.

An empty classroom at the temporarily closed Media Arts Academy.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“The lives of students were at risk because of the residents of Inside Safe,” Hammond said. “We're not the enemy of homeless shelters. We just can't put them in the same building as a high school.”

But records reviewed by the Times show the school has long struggled with issues not directly related to homelessness.

For many years, the academy operated as a charter school for the Los Angeles Unified School District. That is, although it received funding from the California Department of Education, it maintained a certain level of autonomy in its operations. As a private school, the school was funded through donations and tuition fees.

The academy had come under scrutiny from LAUSD for failing to meet academic standards, with students falling behind in subjects such as math and English. LAUSD records show the school also failed to properly conduct criminal background checks on teachers and appointed seven different principals over four years.

“The charter school's current academic levels do not meet the academic needs of its students,” LAUSD's Charter School Division said in a “Notice of Violation” report submitted to the Academy of Media Arts in April 2023.

Hammond disputed the allegations, but the school converted from charter to private status later that year.

LAUSD officials did not respond to requests for comment about the district's previous relationship with the academy.

Hammond did not directly respond to the Times' investigation into the violation notices, instead sharing a 2020 document detailing how the academy deals with concerns about teacher qualifications.

In the lawsuit, Hammond claimed that the hotel's owners said they would remove the homeless residents as soon as the school moved in, but that never happened.

The hotel is owned by Shenzhen New World I, the real estate company of Chinese billionaire Huang Wei, and has been linked to fraud and bribery in connection with the corruption scandal of disgraced former city councilor Jose Huizar. was convicted of the crime.

judgement Shenzhen fined $4 million.

Mr. Hwang was charged with bribery and fraud in this case.He fled the country after the FBI began executing search warrants in 2018 and remains considered a fugitive By the United States Attorney's Office.

Attorneys for Mr. Hammond and Dennis L. Kennedy said, “While Mr. Hwang had no intention of breaking the agreement in his favor, Mr. He has repeatedly made false and misleading statements that suggest otherwise.” Smith wanted to open a nightclub on the roof of the hotel and joined Hammond in the lawsuit.

Russ Cox, a representative for Mr. Huang's company and himself a defendant in the case, declined to comment.

Dennis L. Smith stands near his reflection.

Dennis L. Smith is opening Rome Nightclub on the rooftop of the Los Angeles Grand Hotel downtown. He is disappointed because even though he has all the necessary permits, there are delays.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Huang bought the Grand in 2010 and operated it as a 14-story, four-star hotel. Social media As an “urban oasis”.

In 2021, the Grand was the venue for Project Roomkey, a federally funded program providing shelter to people without housing during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city has paid Shenzhen more than $25 million since the academy opened there in 2022, according to city records.

“The Mayor's Office does not condone the actions of the fugitive grounds owner,” Karger, the mayor's spokesperson, said in a statement to the Times.

After Bass takes over in late 2022, the city will continue to operate the L.A. Grand and add more residents, even though there was already an academy in the building.

The city extended the lease and continued operating the shelter until the end of July. The extension will cost $20 million, including $13.9 million in lease and food costs and $6.8 million in services, according to city records.

Karger said in a statement that L.A. Grand residents will begin relocating to the Mayfair Hotel in May.

“LA Grand has brought hundreds of unhoused people indoors from the harsh elements of life on the streets, and this work continues to save lives every day,” Karger said.

The sidewalks surrounding the school are littered with garbage, empty alcohol bottles, and even discarded syringes. A graffitied sign welcomes visitors to the Academy of Media Arts.

    Graffiti on a school sign, trash, and an abandoned scooter in front of the Academy of Media Arts school.

Graffiti, trash and abandoned scooters in front of the Academy of Media Arts school.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“We moved from a church to a hotel,” said Mary Tashian Williams, who worked at the school from June 2022 until it closed. “Before I found out about the homeless shelter, I thought it was a great idea. “I was there,” he said.

Williams said she spent most of the day walking the floors to make sure no one was breaking into the school.

On January 10, an intruder broke into the school lobby just minutes after students had eaten lunch elsewhere on campus.

“They're trying to kill me,” the man said as security approached him, according to the school's incident report.

It took numerous LAPD officers to subdue him, according to the report.

Mr Hammond said the incident left students frightened and at a loss as to how to protect the teens. On Jan. 12, Hammond and about a dozen students went to a City Council meeting to talk about the issue.

A man goes up the stairs.

Media Arts Academy Principal Dana Hammond climbs the stairs to the homeless shelter located in the same building. Schools were forced to temporarily close after a number of incidents involving residents of homeless shelters.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

He met with City Councilman Kevin de Leon to discuss the issue at a meeting and toured the school that night.

“This location has raised legitimate and serious concerns among students, faculty, and staff, particularly regarding the intrusion into the school by residents of the grounds,” de Leon told the Times in a statement. “My hope in meeting with parents and administrators was that we could avoid school closures, which have been a true tragedy for Black and brown students and parents alike.”

During the hearing, Mr de Leon asked the mayor's office when it plans to move Inside Safe participants from the grounds to the Mayfair Hotel. Officials did not provide a schedule.

“When the mayor first took office in December 2022, we were very aware that there were security concerns, public safety concerns,” said Lourdes, the mayor's head of housing and homelessness. Castro Ramirez told the City Council. “Immediate steps were taken to strengthen security and bring in service providers. …I take their concerns very seriously and I am working with them to better understand how to resolve these issues. We plan to follow up.”

Her comments came after three students cried at a council meeting. Others talked about how much they loved their school and how sad they were to lose it.

Security guards patrol the carpeted halls of the LA Grand Hotel.

Security guards patrol the halls of Project Roomkey, a homeless shelter at the Los Angeles Grand Hotel located in the same building as the Academy of Media Arts in downtown Los Angeles on January 30.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“I'm not against the Inside Safe program. I want all homeless people to have a safe place to live. But while my education and the education of my colleagues are at risk, can’t do that,” said student Alex Hernandez. “This is so dangerous that I fear for my safety.”

Times staff writer David Zahnizer contributed to this report.

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