THROUGH THE FIRE: Keiro, Where Art Thou? (or Why Have You Abandoned the Elders in the Former Keiro Facilities?)

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By MARY UYEMATSU KAO

At a Sept. 10 virtual meeting of the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council’s (BHNC) Planning and Land Use Committee, Pacifica proposed conversion of the Sakura ICF (intermediate care facility) and construction of a new building for a total of 98 multifamily units. (**Rafu,** 9-17-20). U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters commented by phone at the meeting: “Sakura is the only bilingual Japanese intermediate care facility in the country.” The committee unanimously opposed Pacifica’s proposal.

At the full Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council meeting on Sept. 23, all council members present again voted to oppose the Pacifica proposal. Council member Carlos Montes recalled growing up in the neighborhood alongside many Japanese American families and friends in his support to oppose the proposal.

So far, a united Boyle Heights/Koreisha/Little Tokyo community has stymied Pacifica’s attempt to sneak through their gentrification plans during the pandemic. A victory for the Boyle Heights community that has been fighting gentrification and the Japanese American/Japanese community who was severely wronged by the Keiro Board who sold to Pacifica — Pacifica’s proposal was shot down two times!

The 2015 Keiro Board betrayed the founding fathers of Keiro and our community when they sold four facilities to Pacifica real estate corporation for a questionable $41 million. Anyone can figure that a real estate corporate takeover of elder care facilities is not going to end well for the elders who continue to live there. As the “new” Keiro defected from their original dedicated mission of physical care facilities for our elders, they now have pandemic deaths trailing after them.

Dr. Keiko Ikeda reported Kei-Ai South Bay had 61 resident cases (85.9% of residents) and 42 staff testing positive with 18 COVID-related deaths, and numbers continuing to rise. Kei-Ai Los Angeles had 99 residents (34.6% of residents) and 59 staff who tested positive with 22 deaths. . . . And Kei-Ai LA has become a designated COVID-19 facility. (Rafu, 9-10-20)

Shinkichi Koyama (past president and current advisor) of the Southern California Gardeners Federation (SCGF), gave a speech in 2018 reminding us of important historical facts: Nikkei gardeners pooled their resources to build Little Tokyo Towers, the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC), the Aratani Theatre, and Keiro’s retirement, intermediate care, and nursing homes. Members of the SCGF volunteered their time and labor to tend Keiro Homes gardens for 31 years (1983-2014). The Gardena Valley Gardeners Association donated their building and property to Keiro (worth $700,000 in 2000, while now worth at least $1,056,577).

“Currently, the Federation members . . .who remain are the Shin Isseis, who are the Japanese-speaking gardeners. We now have 700 members, whose average age is 78 years old. We are at an age in need of entering Nikkei senior facilities, but the facilities were sold abruptly and they are gone. 

“Our members are now considering the need to return to Japan to enter nursing homes, since there. . .they are receiving care from Japanese-speaking doctors and staff. For them, the dilemma lies in having spent their lifetime building a family in America. . . . It is a very difficult decision for them to leave their children and their grandchildren, and to be separated from their friends and the Nikkei community that they helped to build and have come to know so well. This has come about just because there is no longer a Japanese facility here to care for them in their old age.

The Federation requests that the Keiro Board use the $70 million they have, to rebuild senior facilities to accommodate the Nikkei elderly. We also ask the community for your understanding and support of this critical problem that we are faced with.(For the entire speech, translated by Dr. Keiko Ikeda, please see www.facebook.com/groups/KoreishaSeniorCare)

The gardeners gave so much to build and maintain the Keiro facilities, yet were not even considered in the board’s decision to sell. The Gardeners Federation is the fighting backbone of Koreisha, the only organization dedicated to confront Keiro on its responsibilities to the residents of their former facilities.

In June 2016, Takeshi Nakayama of Nichi Bei Weekly quoted Gary Kawaguchi, Keiro Board chair: “We are committed to working with the new owners to provide consistency for residents, families and volunteers by continuing many of the cultural and educational programs that are valued by the residents.”

Nakayama also quotes Dr. Takeshi Matsumoto, who has been sending patients to Keiro for 33 years: “Shawn Miyake and Gary Kawaguchi are always saying Keiro has vacancies, that it’s only 80% full. That’s just a bunch of B.S. The retirement home vacancies. . .only started when it became public that the Keiro facility was going to be sold. Prior to that, there was a waiting list.

“Even as far back as 2014, I had trouble getting patients into Keiro Nursing Home because they said they didn’t have enough beds. The reason. . .was because they were understaffed.” (https://www.nichibei.org/2016/06/escrow-closes-but-criticism-of-keiro-sale-continues/)

The new Keiro has gone its merry way, putting their trust in historical amnesia while laughing all the way to the bank. The shoddy compromise from State Attorney General Kamala Harris to preserve the conditions of the facilities for five years was never enforced.

Koreisha members at Sept. 14, 2018 protest in front of Keiro’s Little Tokyo office. At center: Koreisha member Aileen Toshiyuki with her granddaughter, Michelle Imamura, daughter of CAB member Traci Imamura — three generations of Aileen’s family involved in this struggle. Lower right: Koreisha member Kyoko Watanabe.

The Community Advisory Board (CAB) was put in place to oversee the transition. Traci Imamura reports on CAB’s inner workings:

“The Keiro Board executed the sale with a deliberate effort to avoid public forums and exclude community input. Tragic decisions go unchecked by a trusting or complacent community — especially when other JA organizations resign themselves to complicit silence.

“Keiro still limits the public’s access to what’s happening at the facilities. Keiro picks who gets to be on CAB. The attorney general required at least 3 seats out of 10 be reserved for Koreisha members and I am one of those three. Three other CAB members recently resigned en masse on the same day via email. Four new CAB applications were submitted: 2 from nursing home families, 1 nursing home volunteer, and a retired nurse — none with ties to any of the parties involved in the sale. Instead Keiro chose a former Keiro Board member, someone who sits on Keiro’s Grants Review Committee, an employee of the operator of the retirement home, and a family member of the Rafu Shimpo. Is anyone else seeing a pattern here?

“Nevertheless, Koreisha members on CAB persist. Last year, CAB refused to ‘rubberstamp approve’ the compliance reports. The Office of the Attorney General told us we are the first of over 50 CABs to not approve a report. I’m proud of that.”

Nakayama reported the transition to be the scene of immediate cutbacks on quality necessities, like meals and diapers. An already underpaid staff saw their health insurance coverage — one of the few things that offset their low wages — drastically reduced. Somehow underpaid and overworked Keiro staff is justified in this “nonprofit” world, while the “leaders” of these “nonprofits” are blatantly overpaid. Shawn Miyake, president and CEO of Keiro, made an income of $301,250 when the facilities were sold — taken from Keiro’s 2015 IRS tax return (nonprofits’ tax returns are public record). Miyake received a retirement sendoff of $805,630 (2016 Keiro tax return).

Granted there is a difference between CEO and staff salaries/wages, but how big should this disparity be? And who actually does the work for the clients? Certainly not the CEO — it is the staff and volunteer workers that the CEO keeps underpaid and overworked. Does something stink in the nonprofit world?

Come February 2021, “legal protection” ends for the residents of the former Keiro facilities from Pacifica’s future plans. What ever happened to Keiro’s commitment to working with Pacifica “to provide consistency for residents, families and volunteers by continuing many of the cultural and educational programs that are valued by the residents.”? As the deadline closes down, Keiro is MIA — missing in action.

John Kanai, president of Koreisha Senior Care and Advocacy (KSCA) in a recent email said: “We’re worried — the eviction of the current elders will be devastating. Where would they go? That is about to happen. We must stop this with the support of all members of the Nikkei community.”

Blocking Pacifica’s gentrification proposals could create favorable conditions for Keiro to buy back their former facilities. Since Keiro said they are financing their present form of virtual elder care off the interest of the $70 million (from the sale and the emergency fund set up by donors to offset rising costs), they’ve got the bucks. And Pacifica might just be willing to sell back the facilities if their gentrification plans get blocked.

The Pacifica proposal will next be heard by the L.A. City Council Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM) Committee. To be determined.

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Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired Sansei photo-journalist and author of “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement.” She can be reached for comments or feedback at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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