By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“People think this is just Little Saigon, and it’s just a block,” said Elaine Ishihara on Feb. 28 at a community meeting comprising International District and Little Saigon community members, City of Seattle employees, and others involved in the incoming Navigation Center.
“But it’s much more than that,” she said. “This is the Chinatown-International District. … And I know that you were put in your position because of your experience working in communities and working with the homeless population. That’s the thing though. No one in this community was included in the process — from the beginning. So again, we are having to respond to something that has already been decided. That is the issue. How is that going to be corrected [moving forward]? … [The City has] this Racial Equity Toolkit. How was that applied to the decision [to house the Navigation Center at Pearl Warren]? You are not giving us enough information. That is very paternalistic. Why don’t you start by answering some of those questions?”
“There’s no answer I can give you that is going to satisfy you,” said George Scarola, the City of Seattle’s director of homelessness.
“Don’t talk directly to me,” Ishihara responded heatedly. She gestured to the crowd behind her. “Talk to the rest of the community.”
This meeting Tuesday night took place at the Pearl Warren building in Little Saigon (606 12th Avenue South), which is the future site of the proposed Navigation Center, a 24-hour living facility for Seattle homeless individuals. The meeting came on the heels of a Feb. 20 letter signed by Little Saigon and International District community members/business owners, requesting “a pause on the location of the new Navigation Center.”
The letter alleged that the City has repeatedly neglected to engage the local community before making significant decisions that adversely affect the neighborhood.
“We are being neglected, ignored, and treated as second-class to every City-sanctioned project and policy that reaches into the Little Saigon neighborhood,” stated the letter.
State of emergency
On Nov. 2, 2015, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and King County Executive Dow Constantine declared states of emergency in Seattle and King County, requesting emergency assistance at the state and federal level to alleviate the area’s pervasive homelessness issues.
Pathways Home is an initiative launched by the City that sets a strategic plan on how the City addresses homelessness. Data has shown that temporary shelters for homeless individuals are not an effective way to move individuals affected to permanent, stable housing. According to the City’s website, 70 percent of the City’s $50 million investment toward alleviating homelessness is spent on these emergency shelter services.
“We know that we are not serving people the best way by just providing a roof over their heads overnight,” said Jason Johnson, deputy director of the human services department at the City.
A solution Pathways Home has proposed is providing low-barrier, 24-hour shelters, which are based on San Francisco’s success with its navigation centers. These shelters are not drop-in shelters. Residents — 75 at the Pearl Warren — will have to be referred in order to quality to stay there. Residents will ideally be those who are ready to transition to permanent housing.
Navigation centers differ from shelters in significant ways. Many individuals opt to stay in unauthorized encampments, rather than traditional shelters because partners, pets, and possessions are banned. At navigation centers, people are allowed to come and go as they please, enter with their animals, and benefit from intensive services provided by the City.
At the community meeting, it was stated that a goal of the Seattle’s Navigation Center is to transition individuals to permanent housing within 30 days, a statement that drew vocal skepticism from the crowd.
A done deal
News of the Navigation Center’s location was released by the City to the public on Feb. 8. For nearly all community members and business owners in Little Saigon, it was the very first time they had heard that Little Saigon was being considered as the location for the center. At the time the press release was sent out, the City had actually already signed a 7-year lease with the Pearl Warren building owners.
“This presentation so far talks about the Navigation Center as an absolute done deal,” said Richard Mar, board chair of the International District Emergency Center (IDEC). “It’s a done deal without consulting with this community. I would like for you to address why that was not done.”
“At some level, all of this stuff is a responsibility of mine,” said Scarola. “Siting is one of the more difficult tasks we have.”
According to Jess Chow, planning and development specialist for the City and lead planner for the Navigation Center, 12 sites were considered for the center before the Little Saigon site was picked. A navigation center requires certain criteria be met: 15,000 square feet minimum space (the San Francisco model is 37,000; Pearl Warren is 20,000), flexible spaces for offices, storage, and pet areas. The center also needs to be easily accessible by mass transit.
“So one of the reasons Pearl Warren was selected was due to the mayor’s commitment to provide treatment to people living in the greenbelt under I-90 and also those [who are homeless] in the [International District],” said Chow. She also added that Pearl Warren also doesn’t contain asbestos, lead, or other known health hazards.
Pearl Warren has to undergo construction and remodeling in order to meet the specifications that a 24-hour center requires. Beyond basic safety upgrades, showers and bathing facilities will also be upgraded. Spaces will be reconfigured for pets.
Sprinklers, lighting, and outdoor fencing will be installed. Chow stated that construction will also be contained to the site — within it and immediately outside the building. She said that there should not be space consumed on Weller Street and there should be no related road closures during construction.
The Navigation Center is slated to open later this year, though a concrete date cannot be set until construction is underway, stated Chow.
On Aug. 26, 2016, Scarola was named by Murray as the City’s first-ever cabinet-level director of homelessness. Scarola was executive director of the Sand Point Community Housing Project from 1992 to 1996, during which time it converted housing at the Sand Point Naval Air Station into homes for unsheltered youth, adults, and families.
“We have an emergency. We have to deal with 3,000 people who are unhoused.” said Scarola at the meeting, explaining — in part — why the Little Saigon community was not consulted in the location of the center before a lease was signed. Scarola conveyed that the City wanted to move quickly. He said, “We haven’t been able to sit down with a community and come up with a plan without [having that plan] stop completely.”
Community members at the meeting seemed to infer that Scarola was saying that, in order to move forward quickly, the City did not consult with the community — which visibly angered many in the room.
“We are confident that in time, the program will be accepted [by the Little Saigon community],” said Scarola. “Is [the location of the center] up for negotiation? No. Why? Because we have spent six months finding a site where these people will be served. All programs that we have cited [in our presentation], to date, have become parts of their communities. … The Sandpoint encampment was a six-year battle. And now it’s an accepted part of that community.”
“I know this doesn’t solve the problem [of lack of community engagement from the City],” added Scarola. “But you asked me, ‘Is it negotiable?’ It is not. We’ve made an agreement [with Pearl Warren’s owner]. What is negotiable is how we can work with the community [going forward].”
“Your tone is really patronizing,” said Tam Dinh, assistant professor and director of field practicum in social work at Saint Martin’s University. “This sounds like a conversation that I would have with a child. It’s what I would say to my three boys. ‘You don’t realize this is good for you yet, but in time, you will realize that this is good for you.’ … When you talk about how there’s no negotiation, it sounds very Trump-like right now. That doesn’t work well with people who are always marginalized.”
“I don’t believe anyone in this room is anti-homeless,” said Ishihara, who is director of Asian Pacific Islander Coalition Advocating Together (APICAT) for Healthy Communities. “I don’t want to be pitted as that. [It’s just that] this is a historically Asian, API (Asian-Pacific Islander) community even before it was Little Saigon. It used to be J-town (Japantown). So the thing is, before you started deciding what you’re going to do with an empty space in this community — I wish we had known about it … [but] you come in here and you say, ‘It’s a done deal.’ And we only heard about this weeks ago … but you say you’ve been going through this process for the last six months? … For crying out loud, we all pay our taxes. This city needs to answer to the constituents.”
Repeat concerns voiced at the meeting were related to public safety. Don Mar, co-owner of Marpac Construction, located next to Pearl Warren, asked for “police presence, twenty-four-seven. I want my employees and my tenants in this neighborhood to feel safe.”
Mar was told that there will not be constant police presence. But it was pointed out that it is significant that the center will be staffed constantly.
“Part of our job is to run this place so that doesn’t degrade the way of life to the people who exist in the broader community,” said Daniel Malone, executive director of Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC). “[T]he Navigation Center will have a significant staff presence, twenty-four-seven. We will have a lot of staff in the building, especially in the waking hours. And we believe that we will be able to be responsive to concerns that will come up in neighborhood about people who are staying in the Navigation Center.”
DESC is contracted with the City’s human services department. DESC will operate the Navigation Center — offering supportive services and case management to transition client-residents into stable, permanent housing. DESC would also attend to health care, substance abuse, and mental health needs.
“One of the positions we will take in operating here is a basic code of conduct, which will include appropriate behaviors inside the facility,” said Malone. “There will need to be additions to this code of conduct about behavior in the neighborhood. We will certainly not tolerate illegal behavior, but even with certain behaviors that are not illegal, behavior that degrades the quality of the life of the neighborhood — for example, panhandling — we will try to intervene to stop it if it’s happening, see if we can get that behavior to change. If not, we might not be able to serve the person from continuing in the program.”
Malone said that the staff present will have regular rounds, essentially walking the building and watching for problem behavior. He also said that he expects staff to participate in the neighborhood, such as through community meetings, as appropriate.
“We will do better moving forward,” said Scarola toward the end of the meeting. “I can’t erase how [the news of the center] came out, but we can do better going forward.” Scarola said that he would like to work with the community to see what engagement and more transparent communication would look like. He said he is unsure of whether it would take the form of additional community meetings or something else, but it is a discussion with the community that he wants to continue.
“[This will be] one of multiple conversations we look forward to having with you,” said Chow. “Ben [Han] and I welcome visits with any groups or businesses [to answer questions] — we can do that as well as attend any community meetings.” Han is the new community projects manager at City of Seattle. He is the City liaison for Chinatown-International District regarding capital projects.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.