By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
On Feb. 8, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced in a press release the location of the “Navigation Center” at the Pearl Warren Building, at 606 12th Avenue South in Seattle’s Little Saigon, an area of predominantly Vietnamese businesses and residents.
“To best serve those living unsheltered in our community, our services must recognize the individuals currently left outside of our current system,” said Murray in the release. “Some of our most vulnerable face mental health and addiction challenges, or have other individualized needs, such as partners, pets or possessions, that the Navigation Center is designed to address. This new approach to addressing the growing national homelessness crisis, which has impacted thousands here in Seattle, allows the City to fill a gap that has prevented many from accessing services and shelter.”
However, those with a stake in Little Saigon are concerned. Minh Duc Nguyen, executive director of Helping Link, a nonprofit with programming that provides English language education, citizenship classes, and technology and job training to Vietnamese immigrants as well as tutoring and youth leadership training to the children of these immigrants. Nguyen said she has been kept in the dark in regard to the City’s intentions to place the center in Little Saigon.
“They need to do a better job of reaching out to the nonprofits and all the business owners in the [Vietnamese] community,” said Nguyen. She also said that the outreach and communications coming out of the City has been lackluster over the years.
When asked to respond to criticisms of lack of communications, Meg Olberding, external affairs director for Seattle Human Services department, explained, “We just announced [the location of the Center]. We have met with Little Saigon in the past, but we are in the process of putting together more of those conversations.”
In June 2016, Murray and the City of Seattle Human Services Department secured $1.67 million in funding for the Navigation Center. It is modeled after the San Francisco Navigation Center — a 24-hour dormitory-style living facility for homeless that also provides case management, mental and behavioral health services, connection to benefits programs, and transition to permanent housing. The Center will be open to a limited number of people this spring.
The City met with members of Friends of Little Saigon, a grassroots community development organization run by a volunteer board on Tuesday, Feb. 7, one day before the mayor’s press release was publicized.
“After the meeting with the mayor’s office, I think community members just came out of it feeling like another thing got added onto our plate,” said Quynh Pham, board chair of Friends of Little Saigon. “It’s just ongoing bad communication from the mayor’s office. There’s a lack of consideration for good communication and processes when it comes to public projects that impact the neighborhood like this.”
“One meeting doesn’t reach a lot of the people doing work in the neighborhood, nor does it stand as effective communication, if that is what the City is considering as outreach,” said Jessa Timmer, executive director of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area (CIDBIA). CIDBIA is one of Seattle’s nine Business Improvement Areas and oversees public safety and promotes the local economy of Chinatown/International District.
Seattle has the 11th highest number of Vietnamese in its city limits in the nation, with 13,252, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Little Saigon, a business district centered at 12th Avenue and Jackson Street, is east of the city’s Chinatown district. The two districts, in addition to Nihonmachi (Japantown) and vestiges of former Little Manila comprise the International District. While the area is currently touted as a cultural destination and an example of Seattle’s ethnic diversity, it is also a neighborhood that originally arose from racial segregation — housing Chinese laborers, Filipino cannery workers, and also a neighborhood that saw the expulsion and later incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II, with Japanese Internment.
“I think the Navigation Center concept is a good one,” added Pham. “And it’s something very new, so we’re pushing the city to do an evaluation, an impact report for us. They need better data on who they are serving and they also should assess the effect and the impact [the center can have] on the surrounding community as well as the effectiveness of the program.”
Pham said that she was told that renovations on the Pearl Warren will be completed in two months. She said her impression is that the City has already started to do recruitment for program participants through its new Navigation Team, which will be comprised of outreach workers paired with specially trained Seattle Police Department (SPD) personnel, who will work to connect unsheltered people to housing and critical resources.
To Pham, Nguyen, and other Little Saigon community members, it seems that a lot of decisions have already been made by the City without input from Little Saigon community members. “They should’ve reached out to us before a final decision [on location] was made, if they knew location in Little Saigon was high on their list. Although I think community members would’ve been opposed to the Center [being placed in our neighborhood], but we also would’ve had time to actually work with them to find ways to mitigate [public backlash] and also support some of their efforts — in educating the community to understand the importance of this project. But to come to us now — it makes us more upset, rather [than inspire us to] be on board to support the project.”
“Why are they always doing things and then, after they’ve already come to their decision, then they say, ‘Okay, now we will work with the community’?” said Nguyen. “They always just do what they will do, and they just ask for forgiveness later.”
Olberding said that the City hopes to start scheduling community meetings for the next month. She also said that they are currently working on outreach, which a lot of materials getting translated. “We are setting up these community conversations so that we can hear the concerns that everyone has and address them as we can.”
“My immediate concern would be placing this Navigation Center in an already struggling neighborhood,” said Timmer. “With this, and with many other projects, the City seems to turn a blind eye to the wants and needs of this immigrant and minority community. While the concept of the Navigation Center may be a good step forward in addressing homelessness, when looking through a race and social justice lens, the location could place a heavier burden on our neighborhood more than it would in other neighborhoods in Seattle.”
“Pitting vulnerable people against vulnerable people is not right,” said Nguyen. “Here’s a community (Little Saigon) that has been here for at least 40 years. We don’t get a lot of support from the City. There’s no priority given to Little Saigon. Businesses here are family businesses and they need to support their employees and staff. And you know, they pay taxes and they help the City in that way. So why doesn’t the City help them? Why isn’t this a partnership? Why is it the City just telling us what it’s going to do?” ■
For more information on Friends of Little Saigon, visit facebook.com/friendsoflittlesaigon.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.