By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
During a visit to the Chinatown-International District (ID) on May 21, King County Executive Dow Constantine met with community leaders and spoke to their concerns about homelessness and anti-Asian hate crimes.
“We see what homelessness has done to our communities and those things must be cleaned up,” he said before eating lunch at the Hong Kong Bistro. “But also this moment when people’s minds have been poisoned with the idea that this pandemic has to do with someone else, someone who doesn’t look like them and they should act out in hateful ways.”
Flanked by community leaders, Constantine said, “We have to stand up, we have to say no. We have to fight back and I am standing with you every step of the way.”
Constantine said he was pleased with the work King County had done to increase housing for people experiencing homelessness. Under his watch, the county has created multiple projects, including purchasing modular units from Houston that oil workers once lived in, converting correctional facilities to housing, sheltering people temporarily in hotels, and purchasing a hotel.
“In recent years, under Executive Constantine, King County worked to open several enhanced shelters, like the DESC West Wing shelter in an unused space in the county’s downtown correctional, Harborview Hall shelter on First Hill, and the recent shelter de-intensification efforts in local hotels with the goal of providing safe shelter combined with onsite 24/7 supportive services—including behavioral health services—to reduce the spread of COVID,” according to a statement from King County Department of Community and Human Services in response to an inquiry from the Asian Weekly.
A study by the University of Washington found that moving people from shelters to modified hotels in Seattle, Bellevue, Renton, and SeaTac, with management by local housing service providers, decreased the spread of COVID while enhancing feelings of well-being, sleep, and hygiene among the guests. Overall, 800 people were sheltered in these hotels.
“It was based on these experiences that the executive proposed and the council approved a one-tenth of a cent sales tax increase to fund the purchase of hotel properties to create housing for as many as 1,600 people experiencing chronic homelessness,” the statement said.
In the new budget, Constantine has proposed a behavioral health crisis response team to respond to people in need in the downtown areas of Seattle, and a new 40-bed enhanced 24/7 emergency shelter specifically to provide behavioral health crisis response services. The location is not yet determined.
“While all shelters have codes of conduct, none require abstinence as a precondition for eligibility. We are working with people where they are,” said the statement.
As for addressing anti-hate crimes, Constantine’s most recent proposed budget includes setting aside $5 million from federal funds to go to the county’s Office of Equity and Social Justice. The funds would be distributed through grants to community-based organizations and “ethnic media.”
However, according to his communications team, the final form of the funding is still unclear. The King County Council is reviewing and may perhaps modify the proposal and make changes. The final budget had not been voted on as of press time.
Constantine, who has served three terms, told the Asian Weekly that he was thrilled to be back in the ID.
“It’s great to reconnect with people I haven’t seen in at least a year.” He said that despite the ravages of the pandemic and the waves of violence that have engulfed the community, the area is still culturally cohesive.
“The continual strength of the Chinese community here in Seattle and certainly in the International District for all the changes that have happened is what I’ve seen,” he said. “There is still the core, the heart of the Chinese community in this place.”
During the tour, which was organized by community leader Tony Au, Constantine visited the Hop Sing Tong Benevolent Association, the Bing Kung Association, the Gee How Oak Tin Family Association, and other community leaders.
Faye Hong, senior adviser to the Hop Sing Tong Benevolent Association, welcomed Constantine to lunch, which was sponsored by the association, according to Au.
“I know that you understand a lot of our problems,” Hong told Constantine. “It really saddens me, this community is being attacked by outsiders.”
Wearing a blue jacket and magenta shirt, Hong spoke about his connection to the community for over six decades.
“This used to be a really vibrant environment,” he said. “But it’s starting to come back, although we still have a long way to go.”
In the front of the restaurant, a cluster of people wearing masks waited near the doorway for takeout food. Plastic bags tied at the top containing food sat on a counter. Outside, many shops and businesses were still boarded up.
Sitting on Constantine’s other side, Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta also delivered a short speech before lunch.
He said Constantine understood the yearning of immigrants to achieve a life better than their parents. Constantine has also taken action to help minority communities during the past year, Matta added.
“He knows that the pandemic has been difficult for us, he put his money where his mouth is, he stood up,” he said.
Au said he organized the tour to support Constantine’s reelection campaign. He said he favored his approach to homelessness, which he described as getting people off the streets.
“The homeless people can be abused out there,” he said.
Former president of the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Dennis Su, in an email, said it was significant to the community that Constantine made the tour.
“He is running for reelection and did the right thing to pay respects to the traditional Chinatown organizations by showing up and ‘rubbing elbows’ with them,” he said. “It was also encouraging to see the support from these groups for his efforts.”
Matta, in his remarks, mentioned that the Chinese community is “highly organized.”
According to Au, other community leaders that joined the event included Bellevue City Councilmember Janice Zahn, Gee How Oak Tin Family Association National Senior Adviser Michael Chen, Soo Yuen Benevolent Association National Senior Adviser Warren Chinn, Hip Sing Association National Vice President Tony Wong, Bing Kung Tong Association Senior Adviser Tom Cheng, Guangzhou Association President Dr. Ming Xiao, community leader Qiufeng Peng, Founding President Seniors in Action Foundation Nora Chan, President Seattle Youth Association of Jiangmen Peter Kuang, and Suey Sing Association Senior Adviser Bing Song.
In private remarks with the Northwest Asian Weekly, Constantine described the displacement he said had been happening to the ID and other ethnic communities, and said investment was needed to preserve cultural integrity.
He mentioned the destruction of Nihonmachi, although he said there was still a strong Japanese community.
He said an example of a community that has “been upended” is Ballard, which used to be a Scandinavian center for the Swedish and Norwegian communities. Places like Little Manila and Little Saigon, as well as the South Central District, were still cohesive, he said.
“It gives hope to have neighborhood communities that are culturally rich,” he said.
Clutching his chopsticks tightly, waiting to tuck into a lunch of fried noodles and other Cantonese fare, Constantine, who is of Greek descent, seemed perfectly at home.
“I know this community better than the Greek community,” he said.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.