By Patty Fong
King County Department of Community and Human Services is planning to spend $66.5 million to construct a 24/7 homeless shelter that will house more than 500 people in the Chinatown-International District (CID), already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian violence and crime, drug use, tent camps, vagrancy and small business closures and flight.
I know what it is like to have a ‘fast one” like this pulled on your neighborhood. The City of Seattle approved a homeless shelter in my neighborhood without reasonable, timely community notification or a definitive plan for engagement, but only after the contract was awarded.
The CID and Little Saigon have experienced the destabilizing consequences—urban blight—of a low barrier shelter, namely the DESC Navigation Center. The notorious and long-standing open air drug and stolen goods market at 12th and Jackson is the most egregious example. It took months to get rid of, a blithe, superficial token visit by the King County Executive notwithstanding. The activity has since moved across the street, and users and dealers have taken over all the bus stops in this area, only a few blocks from the Navigation Center. The Seattle Police Department plays whack-a-mole but the real mole is the Navigation Center.
Before it was placed here, there was no urban blight. We do not know to this day if the Navigation Center is adhering to the city’s Good Neighbor Policy or any other required accountability. The City and King County Metro are barely able to provide safe streets and unobstructed bus stops here.
Other examples of urban blight that surround homeless shelters can be found at the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), the Glen Hotel Apartments (run by Low Income Housing Institute), and the Morrison on Third Avenue (run by DESC). The Glen Hotel Apartments used to have T.J. Maxx, Steak ‘n Shake, and Starbucks as neighbors. They all went out of business and an infamous open air stolen goods and drug trade, as well as brazen drug use, flourished there for months without City Council or police action.
Do you see the pattern? Urban blight developing around homeless shelter services, lack of City/County attention/security, loss of businesses and residents.
The City and the County have chosen the CID as the favored recipient for another social experiment in homeless housing. They know they can get away with it because the community is politically powerless, the City is indifferent, and because the County did not meaningfully engage the community—as would be demanded in a white, rich neighborhood—with not only notification or superficial meetings, but failing to commit to community considerations and concerns with a detailed, transparent plan for oversight, accountability, and being a Good Neighbor (Good Neighbor Agreement, 2019, City of Seattle, which the County is also obliged to adhere to). Buy-in is key here and why shouldn’t it be?
Without taking into consideration the impacts on an already struggling immigrant community of color, without engaging community leaders in meaningful, committed planning, oversight, and mechanisms for transparency and accountability, the County and City have reduced the CID to an impotent, politically convenient dump for homeless social services that no other community wants but is more powerful to resist, doing a disservice not just to the CID but to potential shelter residents.
The County apparently has no plan, no accountability, no transparency, and no concern, and only in the CID can they get away with this!
The bad reputation and concerns that homeless shelters come with are not without merit, but blame the service providers and their funders, not rightfully concerned community residents and business owners.
A project like this needs, at a minimum, a formal community oversight board that is funded with stipends for the participants, to monitor results, and ensure accountability, responsibility, and responsiveness to historically justifiable community concerns, especially public safety. LIHI offered property on Third Avenue for a police station. The City should consider this for the CID. Mitigations are in order here such as City support for public safety and small business support.
What kind of detailed plan does the King County Department of Community and Human Services have for this homeless shelter? Was it presented to community leaders and the public for review and comment, like an Environmental Impact Statement? If so, what was the time period for review and comment? Were other sites considered and, if so, where or why not? Is there a plan for community oversight, engagement, and communication? Will the shelter, as all should be, subject to City regulations pertaining to hygiene, health, and public safety and do these even exist, per the City? What assurances for accountability to the CID and taxpayers, per the City’s Good Neighbor 2019 Agreement, has the County provided? Can an understaffed and underfunded police department keep the CID safe and law-abiding?
The City and County must consider the well-documented adverse consequences of the DESC Navigation Center on CID and Little Saigon residents, business owners, and visitors, as well as the already disproportionate burden the CID bears with DESC and LIHI projects along Jackson. Additionally, the evidence is unfortunately apparent of the negative consequences all along Third Avenue.
If the City and County cannot document and guarantee the rights of not only community members to expected safety but also shelter residents and funders, the County should desist or halt its project until sufficient time has been agreed upon and allowed for better, more fair, and equitable planning and engagement. We have rights, too, and we demand to be respected, heard, and included!
That said, this 500-resident low barrier shelter is inappropriately sited in the CID. Remember, Sound Transit wants a piece of the Historic Chinatown neighborhood, too. Death by a thousand cuts is happening and I urge the people of Seattle to stand up for the Asian American community.
Failure to do so otherwise suggests staggering anti-Asian and immigrant racism and will surely hasten the continued and inevitable demise of Seattle’s only immigrant community.