By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
In King County, under the leadership of County Executive Dow Constantine, several initiatives have been funded to support the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population. Most of these initiatives promote empowering community organizations while building trust in the populace for those same organizations.
“Since I took office, our philosophy has been not to try to be the one answer…but to create partnerships with trusted community-based organizations that already have relationships, or that are trusted by their constituencies, and to have the services be either delivered by them, or networked to the people by them.”
Interconnected issues — housing, homelessness, gangs — require an interconnected response.
For example, King County set aside $5 million for a Filipino Community Village project that will create housing for low-income seniors near the upcoming Graham Street Light Rail station. Constantine recognizes that many of those displaced by Seattle’s economic boom are immigrants.
“The pace of change and the newfound affluence in our community is startling too many of us who’ve lived our whole lives here,” he acknowledged. With this affluence comes opportunity, and also what Constantine termed “unintended consequences,” such as “insecurity for individuals who are not participating in the new economy, or who have in some way been left behind, or are on a fixed income.” In Constantine’s view, King County needs to support all scenarios.
“We have to ask what kind of place we want to be. I think we want to be the kind of place that both is full of economic opportunity and has deep roots.”
This means partnerships. When it comes to housing, it means a combination of public and for-profit options.
While Constantine is working with the state legislature to lower the income percentage required for workforce housing, from what is now 30 to 80 percent of the average income to 0 to 30 percent, he also believes that “public investment is necessary to make up for the inability of the market to create housing for people of all income ranges.” As Constantine explained, having a spectrum of housing is a policy choice, not a market choice.
“We choose as a matter of policy to want an economically diverse community.”
We also choose to protect our own, including those facing homelessness. Constantine explained that King County’s homelessness crisis is part of a larger, nationwide crisis.
“Homelessness is a product of a lot of national and global forces, not just local forces…but growing income inequality nationally, [and] the conscious choice by the national government to disinvest in the safety net and the infrastructure that allows people to be successful.” Once a person has become homeless, it is very difficult to get back out. “Most people who are homeless do not want to be homeless,” said Constantine. “Most people who are homeless are just like you and me, but they’ve had some bad breaks.”
Homelessness is exacerbated when a person comes out of “the system” — be it the justice, mental health, or foster care system — and does not have a new support system. That’s where community partnerships come in, and the County’s support of organizations in place that strive to combat the many factors that lead an individual into homelessness.
“Our job is to knit together that community and get everyone oriented towards the point on the horizon we’re all striving for.”
How to do this in a political climate when many people hesitate to come forward due to the federal administration’s hostility towards immigrants? Deportation, according to Constantine, is “outrageous,” and he noted that “the United States government, the congress, has to come to grips with real immigration reform that recognizes the need of our country to continually have new residents coming to our shores.” This just makes sense. “It’s good for the economy. It’s good for the culture. It’s the thing that has made America different and made it successful.”
King County and the City of Seattle have funded $5.6 million in know-your-rights services for immigrants and refugees, to span 2019 through 2023.
“We’ve provided resources…so that people are not so easily intimidated by the federal government or by those who are invoking the Trump administration’s lines in order to try to intimidate people.” Constantine insisted, “Nobody at King County government is to predicate the delivery of services on your immigration status…We do not ask for people’s papers when they need help.” This includes when accessing health services, reporting crimes, or testifying in court.
“We want people to be safe…regardless of their immigration status. We do not want to drive people into the shadows by having them think that we are somehow an agent of this now hostile federal administration.”
It is not the County that people need to worry about, Rather, it is those who prey upon the disadvantaged, such as gangs and human traffickers. According to Constantine’s sources, most Asian gangs seek to harm members of their own communities, by taking advantage of those with economic and language barriers, and what is often a cultural distrust of government. “It is absolutely incumbent on law enforcement, on the justice system, generally, on government, to build trust that will keep people from being victimized in that way.”
Many victims are young people, and King County has set a high goal for reducing youth detention: Zero.
“While it seems to some people to be purely aspirational, [this goal] is actually intended as a measure to keep us focused in every single case on asking the question: What could have been done differently here?” Community responsibility. And in fact, King County has already had a great deal of success. The number of youth in detention has fallen from what was historically around 200, to 40 (plus those being charged as adults). Constantine and King County have also gotten behind Best Starts for Kids, a program that has awarded over $7 million to AAPI organizations, such as the Chinese Information and Service Center, in order to fund services for families and children.
It takes a village. Or a County. And although it is beneficial when those in leadership positions place people first, it takes a concerted, combined effort to make sure that no one is left behind. “It’s about having a functioning community,” said Constantine. “A compassionate community…But functioning. We cannot have a community where tens and even hundreds of thousands of people are excluded from participating, who don’t feel as though they can be part of these basic institutions. Everyone needs to be able to be here.”
As to whether Constantine will take on a new leadership position as governor in the near future, he responded, with a laugh. “People do ask from time to time,” then went on to say, “If the time is right, and if I feel it’s the right thing for my family, then it seems like a logical next step, but time will tell.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.