By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
An eyesore vanished in Chinatown when I came home after a trip to Asia. The 10-plus homeless encampments, along with the filth, trash, and smell, had been cleaned up on South King Street under the I-5 freeway on July 18.
That’s the good news. The bad news is, it might be temporary. How do we, as a community, make it permanent? How do we get government officials not just to listen, but act? Why is it so hard to get the City to do something, while the Asian community is in anguish with public safety concerns over the camps?
The homeless camps started popping up early this year, shortly after the nearby Nickelsville camp closed on Mar. 11 and the clearing out of “The Jungle” during the summer. Chinatown became a convenient dumping ground for homeless camps. The impact was appalling. Crimes, including robberies, mugging, car prowls, and graffiti in the International District (ID), were evident. Drivers who parked their cars during the day under the freeway lot (managed by the InterIm Community Development Association) were afraid to walk back after work.
In April, InterIm sent a letter (also printed in the Northwest Asian Weekly) to Mayor Ed Murray asking for help to close the camps due to the continued deterioration of the increased unregulated tents under the freeway. The tent residents created fire hazards through cooking, and unsanitary conditions through urination and illegal drug use.
According to the Wing Luke Asian Museum’s newsletter, “In June, at an emotional all-staff meeting (a block away from the camps), some said they no longer felt safe coming to work, and irresponsible asking visitors to come visit. The Wing is a significant tourist attraction, educational resource, and community gathering space in a fragile neighborhood, and in July, the Museum board came close to closing down operations.”
Also in June, there was an outcry about the homeless tents at a community meeting with Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, and attendees begged for action. The chief even walked with Rep. Sharon T. Santos and Pradeepta Upadhyay, executive director of InterIm, to see firsthand how the camps were occupying King Street.
However, none of these events resulted in any direct action from the City until the preparation of the Seafair Chinatown Parade on July 24.
Shaming the city
To get the City’s attention, Dennis Su, parade chair of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, posted a photo on Facebook, of hundreds of kids who would be parade participants, and he showed the challenge in managing the parade through the homeless camps (along the parade route). He said Seafair would need to get more police in front of each camp to guide parade participants. The photo was picked up by KING-TV anchor Lori Matsukawa, who posted it on her Facebook page.
It was impossible for Su to reroute the parade with tents on King Street.
Shift the blame
The issue with many government bureaucracies is that they like to pass the buck. From one department to another, they point to the next guy. Which department should take the initiative? Is it the Seattle Police, the Department of Transportation, someone else? Why is no one stepping up and taking the leadership role to say, “All agencies need to work together — gather everyone together to figure out a solution.”
Obviously, the community couldn’t figure it out. How in the world would we know how to cut through red tape?
Another issue is, who has jurisdiction over South King Street? The parking lot belongs to Washington state, and leased to InterIm. The sidewalks and streets are under the City of Seattle’s jurisdiction.
However, the place in between the sidewalk and the parking lot, where the homeless tents are erected, is no man’s land. That’s where the frustrations lie. The homeless know how to take advantage of the law. As Chief O’Toole said at the June meeting, police have no power to remove the camps. There are procedures to follow, and it takes time. The police presence did increase after the meeting.
To be fair, the police were watching for opportunities. One cop told Su that if the tents’ residents sell drugs — it is illegal — and it would be grounds to clean up the tents. Police did end up finding out about the drug activity, and they conducted an inspection.
Su said the mayor did work behind the scenes. On July 12, the City coordinated with the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the State Department of Corrections to get cellmates to clean up the garbage. On July 14, the City posted an eviction notice. Some camp residents began to move away. On July 19, the City’s big power trucks arrived and washed the streets. No camp residents objected, said Su. A police car was present to observe and protect just in case there was resistance. A representative from the City’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services, who reports directly to the mayor, was there to assist.
After the cleanup
“We have seen tremendous improvement in the area,” said Upadhyay. “Police patrolling has significantly increased, garbage is being collected, and the (InterIm) parking lot is filled as it used to be previously.” Parking revenue has since increased, she added.
Maiko Winkler-Chin, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation Development Authority (SCIDpda), said she now feels safer walking to her car at night, which she parks under the freeway. “I don’t feel as anxious of someone popping out from behind the columns in the lot. I do not have to walk through trash and other items to get to and from my car. I do not smell excrement or urine. I do not witness the same level of uncomfortable behavior.”
Is it sustainable?
“I am very much concerned that the tents will come back, and in such high concentration,” said Winkler-Chin.
Su said for now, the City will continue the power truck wash every week for five weeks, since their first clean up on July 18. After that, the City can’t stop the homeless from coming back.
“What we need to do is stay on it. Make sure we call the City’s Customer Service Bureau (CSB) when we see tents, and don’t presume that someone else is calling,” said Winkler-Chin.
Meanwhile, the mayor’s CID Task Force, made up of community members to develop strategies to improve neighborhood policing and economic development, were pushing on the other front. Task force member Alan Lai said that WSDOT attended their meeting two weeks before the cleanup. The members voiced their worry that the camps might be back.
Deputy mayor Hyeok Kim visited the ID on Aug. 13 to meet with Chinatown leaders focusing on public safety. Most of the recent crimes are purse snatchings and restaurant robberies.
InterIm is working with the community and the City to develop a short and long term plan to activate the space under 1-5, according to Upadhyay.
“By activating the space, we hope to make it beneficial for the community and also ensure the encampments do not start building up again,” Upadhyay said.
So far, a couple of events with a dance and food trucks, organized by Ali Lee, founder of Eco8 Community Builders, were held at the parking lot to discourage homeless folks from returning. The turnout was not ideal due to the lack of publicity.
“If we’re not getting a response from the administrative or executive side of the city (mayor and his departments),” said Winkler-Chin, “we need to let the … city council know… our district representative, Bruce Harrell, and the two at-large members who represent us all — Lorena Gonzalez and Tim Burgess.”
Lai said the task force wants a steering committee to continue to monitor the situation. “[Asians] are too polite,” Lai said. “We need to pressure the city more.”
To file a complaint, call the Customer Service Bureau (CSB) at (206) 386-1234.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.