By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
An abandoned, empty syringe with the word “Safety” on it appears several times in a local newscast. But Matt Chan, a member of the Chinatown-International District (CID) Night Watch, sees them everywhere when he makes his rounds with the team.
“There’s a real split in the CID about homelessness,” he told the Northwest Asian Weekly. “Business owners are concerned about the impact of the encampments on their sales, and a number of young people think sweeping the unhoused is inhumane.”
Such a split is one potential obstacle to the ambitious plan, announced this month by King County Equity Now (KCEN), a Black-led consortium of businesses and advocacy groups, to ask the city government to buy the Keiro Rehabilitation and Care Center building from Shelter Holdings so that it can establish a homeless shelter.
The Keiro building was sold for $11 million a year ago to the Bellevue-based real estate company after its parent company, Keiro Northwest, ran into financial problems. Shelter Holdings initially announced it would use the property to allow Mary’s Place to house homeless families before the building was torn down and a mixed-use building with apartments and street-front stores was built.
Chan, a former board member of Keiro, said his understanding was “the deal never came to fruition because a short-term lease wasn’t good for Mary’s Place.” Mary’s Place was not available for comment as of press time.
The next bidder was Africatown Community Land Trust, which a few months ago said it was interested in purchasing the property to develop affordable housing on the model of some of its other properties.
However, the more recent plan, announced by KCEN (of which Africatown is a member), garnered the support of City Councilmember Kshama Sawant last month, who proposed the city use funds earmarked for the police or a tax on Amazon and other corporations to raise the money and purchase the building.
However, Africatown is also considering other approaches to raise funds.
“Africatown Community Land Trust is currently working through details of assembling institutional financing,” said K. Wyking Garrett, CEO of Africatown Community Land Trust (ACLT) and a member of King County Equity Now Coalition, in an email. He said Africatown is holding a capital campaign, which is accepting contributions. The price Shelter Holding is asking, $13.8 million, is 25% higher than its purchase price one year ago.
KCEN has already asked the real estate company if it would donate the property and take a tax write-off, said Garrett.
If it is able to acquire the Keiro building, KCEN hopes to further its mission of empowering the Black community and other communities of color that have been marginalized in manifold ways throughout history.
“The mayor and many other elected officials have articulated on many occasions that systemic racism expressed in policies and practices have harmed the Black community in Seattle for decades,” said Garrett.
House Bill 1918 from 2019 also speaks to such harms, he said. The bill addresses “community preservation.”
“Where damages have been done to deny and marginalize, there should definitely be remedies enacted to remediate, restore, and repair,” he added.
A statement in support of the effort, from the CID Coalition, squarely linked the oppression of Asians, Asian Americans, and other marginalized groups with that experienced by Blacks, although emphasizing that Black communities have suffered more severely.
“Decades of defunding housing, education, and healthcare for Black, brown, immigrant, and refugee families and communities, while steadily increasing the City’s policing budget, has only widened racial and economic disparities—especially for our Black neighbors who have been most directly impacted by police violence and gentrification,” it said.
At the same time, it tied the plan to purchase Keiro with city funds and donate it to KECN to the Black Lives Matter-inspired movement to defund the police.
“It’s time to break this cycle of disinvestment and inequity by reallocating the City’s budget away from criminalizing Black, Indigenous, and POC communities and instead towards supporting community self-determination, safety, and health,” the statement said.
However, when asked in a follow-up email to comment on the division within the CID over policies toward the homeless, the Coalition demurred.
Blacks are disproportionately overrepresented in the homeless population, between 40-50% while only representing 8-10% of the population, according to Garrett.
“The community has solutions and should be in control of the resources that are allocated to impact our lives,” he said.
Moreover, homelessness is a magnet for many groups with vulnerabilities.
According to government statistics, 11% of people experiencing homelessness are veterans. And at least 80% of those that use drugs became addicted by first becoming hooked to opioids that were given to them by friends, family, or medical personnel. The figure rises to 85% for younger users.
The figures also show that almost half of all veterans experiencing homelessness are Black or Latino, even though their proportion among veterans overall is only 10% and 3%, respectively.
The city, meanwhile, has been inconsistent in its policies. Former Mayor Ed Murray established a Navigation Center and team to provide services to the homeless.
While under Mayor Jenny Durkan, sweeps of encampments have begun, then halted as some council members argued they would contribute to spreading the coronavirus, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Meanwhile, homelessness remains a problem for everyone, said Chan. Business owners face loss of business and harassment of customers. And people experiencing homelessness face a variety of challenges.
“The complexity of just living can be daunting,” he said. “They shouldn’t be criminalized, being poor isn’t a crime.”
The plan is so recent, however, it is not clear how the differing attitudes toward homelessness in the CID might affect its implementation. Some details are clear about KCEN’s plan, though.
“In the short-term, the existing Keiro building will be used to provide emergency housing supported by culturally responsive services and resources on site,” said Garrett.
“Long-term, it will be redeveloped as affordable housing which is critical to addressing homelessness caused by the high cost of housing.” Garrett also said that the facility would not have to be torn down to provide emergency relief for those experiencing homelessness.
“The Keiro site can facilitate housing for up to 200 people as it is currently configured,” he said.
One idea to contribute to the plan would involve bringing in an established local agency to provide substance abuse treatment for those needing it among the homeless population.
Fred Kiga, another former Keiro board member, suggested involving the International Community Health Service (ICHS), opening up all sorts of possibilities for serving all marginalized communities with roots in the area.
“ICHS might be able to do this as a project that serves the homeless and seniors providing affordable health care, that would help all people of color, too,” he said.
To support Africatown’s capital campaign, go to: africatownlandtrust.org.
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.