By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Chinese community members gathered at Chong Wa Benevolent Association in Seattle’s Chinatown on Tuesday, Oct. 11 to not only voice concerns about proposed legislation regarding unsanctioned homeless encampments in their neighborhood, but also to air their grievances over the perceived lack of progress on an issue that has adversely affected Chinatown residents and businesses. This community forum was hosted by Chong Wa and the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA).
Tyler Emsky, legislative assistant to Seattle Councilmember Debora Juarez, was the only representative from the City for the first hour or so (Andra Kranzler, legislative assistant to Councilmember Lisa Herbold, arrived later), which incited frustration from many of the Chinatown community members present at the forum.
“For a meeting like this, [the city councilmembers] don’t even show up,” said Tony Au, sifu of the International School of Martial Arts. “This is a disgrace to our Chinese community. Just one time — show up, show their faces. Listen to our voices.”
Emsky responded by saying that Juarez had a speaking engagement that night and regrets not being there. Emsky said that Juarez tasked him with representing her. “She sent me to come here and to hear what everyone has to say and to write it all down.”
The homeless ordinance at the center of the ongoing debate is one originally drafted by homeless and legal advocates, not by the City of Seattle. The ordinance is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Columbia Legal Services, Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, the Public Defender Association, Seattle Community Law Association, and Real Change, and it was in response to what they deemed very problematic clean-up efforts — called homeless sweeps — by the City.
The original draft of this ordinance pushed for the end of forced removal of homeless encampments, which was deemed an ineffective solution to the problem. The ordinance was introduced by Councilmember Mike O’Brien and was sponsored by Councilmembers Rob Johnson, Lisa Herbold, and Kshama Sawant.
“One thing that we are really focused on is that we want to find ways to reduce the number of people who are homeless and make more housing for people,” said Emsky. “We’re trying to find ways to build housing faster. We think that’s the number one way to reduce homelessness and get people off the street.” Emsky stated that what Juarez is doing is listening to what everyone has to say and will take the input into account when the city council votes on the legislation.
Scott Lindsay, special assistant to the mayor for police reform and public safety, reportedly called before the forum to relay a message on behalf of the mayor.
Lindsay said that he wanted to be at the forum, but could not because he was dealing with the aftermath of a Seattle Police Department (SPD) officer-involved shooting at the Jungle, an infamous homeless encampment known for higher incidents of violence relative to others.
The shooting happened Tuesday afternoon during a planned sweep. Two men were engaged in a fight involving a knife. SPD officers fired when the men reportedly refused to stop fighting — one was wounded and the other in critical condition before he died at Harborview, according to the Associated Press.
According to a call from SPD, one of the men shot by SPD is Asian or Asian American.
As relayed by CIDBIA Executive Director Jessa Timmer, Lindsay said that Murray continues to strongly oppose the ordinance. “Even though there have been revisions and changes, the main problems that he sees still remains with the ordinance. So right now, the City is in the process of finding, in the budget, more money that goes toward solving homelessness. … [The mayor] wants to let us know that he will ensure that the police will continue to ensure that there is safety in our neighborhood.”
The mayor has the authority to veto ordinances passed by the city council, and the council may override vetoes with a two-thirds (six out of nine councilmembers) majority vote.
There is the observation and perception by many that Chinatown and the International District is disproportionately affected by homeless encampments. A segment of freeway stretches over the district and, with the incoming winter rain and snow, the underpass is an attractive spot for homeless encampments because it’s shelter from the weather.
A prominent concern voiced at the forum is that the vast majority of the residents in the neighborhood are especially vulnerable — low-income, elderly, with limited English language skills — thus, safety is important.
“One of the things I would like for the council to look at, whether in this ordinance or in general, is to look at the racial equity toolkit, used for development in this neighborhood and other neighborhoods,” said Timmer. “See how it affects low-income residents.”
Au said he believes most of the homeless population is harmless to Chinatown residents, but their presence deters tourism and adversely affects Chinatown businesses. Au also said that the homeless population needs help. “It’s also unsafe for them to be on the street. If the ACLU really cares, they should know that the homeless on the street can’t take care of themselves [due to substance abuse and mental health issues].”
“Of the 4,000 emails we’ve gotten on this subject, it’s 10 to 1, opposing the legislation,” said Emsky. “And it’s really apparent that by working on this legislation, it’s distracting us from focusing on the underlying causes, getting people in housing, getting people treatment. It’s apparently that this legislation is a distraction.”
Kranzler, who represented Herbold, a supporter of the ordinance, said that Herbold doesn’t want Seattle’s homelessness issue to worsen. “That’s where the pro councilmembers are at. On Friday, you will be able to attend a committee meeting where they will be talking about what they’ve learned.”
The city council will have a special committee meeting on Oct. 14 at 9:30 a.m. at city hall. According to Timmer, the council will not be voting on the legislation, but continuing the discussion.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.