By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
The smell from a pile of trash is so strong that it hangs several yards out into the street. It smells like sickly sweet human flesh. But a young girl in torn jeans and a rose sticking out of her back pocket stands transfixed over the pile, looking for something useful. A few minutes later, she is on the other side of the parking lot, which contains the trash, holding her hands up wildly and swaying.
A plan to “protect” the parking lot, which is leased by the state to InterIm Community Development Association, and encompasses the area between South Jackson and South King streets under I-5, is underway. It involves extending and broadening the fence around the lot.
State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, working with the Chong Wa Benevolent Association and InterIm, led efforts to secure $100,000 from the state transportation budget to rebuild and lengthen the fence so that it reaches to the very ends of the parking lot, and InterIm will be able to put up a “no trespassing” sign. That will allow police to remove people or bring in social workers to help them transition to a different environment.
“Of course, InterIm can already call the police, but the police are unable to do anything if the campers are camped out on public property . . . this is the central issue,” Santos said.
As it is, the land is managed by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) but leased to InterIm which in turn has taken over the management. But the property is also the responsibility of WSDOT. WSDOT personnel are not equipped or trained to remove hazardous waste, said Santos, who brokered discussions with the community organizations, WSDOT, and also brought members of the various legislative committees to the site.
Moreover, WSDOT workers are not able to remove people from their property, she said.
Having a “no trespassing” sign along a complete fence would allow Seattle police to respond to a call “about unhoused people camping in a public right-of-way,” said Santos.
The fence would also help keep the property clear in another way. Tent encampments with homeless people inside them were seen last week along one side of the fence—on the outside. But they were on a strip of land that is raised higher than the sidewalk and is next to it.
That strip of land, a long grey platform of concrete, holds the bottom of the poles that rise up in the darkness to hold up the freeway. It is also land managed by InterIm, so until recently it had not been subject to clearance by the police, said Santos.
The purpose of broadening the fence is to remove access to that extra strip of land. In that case, the fence will come right up to the sidewalk, which is a public right of way and the responsibility of the city, its police, social workers, and other professionals.
“Things have been increasingly challenging for the community in terms of public safety and public sanitation,” said Santos.
Healing the community
The fencing may also solve tensions between Chong Wa, which apparently levied complaints about the parking lot, and InterIm—or it is meant to do so. Chong Wa did not respond to multiple requests for comments.
Yet even the narrative about how the fencing solution came to be is questioned by different parties.
“I am not aware of any questions about the origins of the fencing idea,” Santos told the Northwest Asian Weekly.
She said the idea emerged from one of multiple meetings she had with the community.
“The idea really did come from especially this one meeting where we had the people from Chong Wa there and we had InterIm there, and when Chong Wa was able to hear about what the challenges were from the standpoint of the State Department of Transportation and the challenges that InterIm was having, they said, ‘But our property owners are able to do this, why can’t InterIm do that?’ And it was because the fence didn’t go far enough,” she said. “And that was sort of like this moment where all those lightbulbs go off all at the same time and it was like, let’s just re-fence it.”
But Tom Im, deputy director of InterIm, said the solution had been discussed at InterIm internally for years.
“I just want to reiterate that the fencing idea did not, in any way, originate from Chong Wa, as that would be a false narrative—though they might’ve come up with the idea from their own internal conversations. However, the idea has been discussed well before last year. If anything, Rep. Santos helped push this forward and if it wasn’t for her work, this wouldn’t have happened,” Im said.
A personal issue
Still, such small differences may reflect a greater sense of frustration that the freeway represents for the community. They also perhaps reflect uncertainty about the future.
The neighborhood was “intentionally” split by the freeway in the 1960s, said Im, who has worked at InterIm for 25 years. According to Santos, this caused parts of the community to shrivel.
During the 1970s, her late husband Bob Santos led a movement to advocate for the space under the freeway to be turned into a parking lot to help revitalize the community. In an interview with Densho on June 30, 2011, Bob Santos described the process as part of a way to save the Chinatown-International District (CID) by bringing in more business to its remaining shops and restaurants through more parking spaces.
The money from parking was also transformative to InterIm, which for a time Bob Santos led, because it allowed the organization to do lobbying since the parking entity was not constrained by the laws that governed InterIm itself as a nonprofit.
Still, today, InterIm does not make any substantial revenue from the parking lot, said Im.
“Over the last couple years, I’m pretty sure it’s been down a lot to the point where we aren’t making any income, if not making a loss,” he said.
The fencing is meant as a community solution, he said.
At the same time, though, the need for the fencing highlights an apparent dysfunction between state and city governments—one that it is not clear the future will remedy.
There is, in fact, already a provision that requires city police to take responsibility over areas of land under and along freeways that pass through the city. A 1961 provision in the revised code of Washington (RCW 47.52.200) allows city police, county sheriffs, and state patrol to enforce laws, which would include trespassing or any other state laws.
“Whenever any limited access highway facility passes within or through any incorporated city or town the municipal police officers of such city or town, the sheriff of the county wherein such city or town is situated and officers of the Washington state patrol shall have independent and concurrent jurisdiction to enforce any violation of the laws of this state occurring thereon,” it sates.
Moreover, it appears that Seattle police, even as recently as March 17, carried out a sweep of state-managed land under the freeway along one side of the current fence.
Photos obtained by Northwest Asian Weekly show countless bicycle police officers, patrol vehicles, and a garbage truck along South Jackson Street. The following week, that side of the fence was mostly empty of tents and trash. It was not clear why the other side of the fence, on South King Street, was still full of encampments.
When asked if police were operating under such a law that allowed them to enforce on state-managed property, the Seattle Police Department responded, “You will need to reach out to the Mayor’s office regarding this inquiry.”
Jamie Housen, director of communications for the city of Seattle said the encampment that was removed on March 17 “was primarily on City-owned property.” A few tents on WSDOT property were also removed, he said, under a “maintenance agreement between the City of Seattle and WSDOT.”
“Existing laws do not prevent Seattle from conducting encampment removals on WSDOT properties within the City. That said, maintenance agreements between Seattle and WSDOT are important for informing City practices and clarifying roles and responsibilities,” Housen said.
As of press time, however, it was not clear which laws the city would be following in the future if it removed homeless encampments from the InterIm parking lot—existing laws, or no trespassing laws activated by the expanded fencing. Nor did it seem clear under what circumstances the police would be acting at the direction of the city or the state or simply responding to a call from InterIm.
Hope for collaboration
The lack of clarity may reflect systemic issues of local governments trying to work together. Rep. Santos hopes to make sure that the personnel who have the requisite training and authority are protecting the InterIm parking lot.
“People know when governments don’t work, but they don’t really know why governments don’t work,” said Rep. Santos. “And it’s not because we’re not trying.
Then all of a sudden you have two different governments. You have the city and you have the state. Both trying to accomplish something. And if they can’t get along, then we’re all in trouble, right?”
Housen said Mayor Bruce Harrell was “putting a renewed focus on regional collaboration, bringing together county, state, and federal efforts and resources to make a difference in the immediate and long-term. That includes engaged work with the new Regional Homelessness Authority, funding their work and supporting the new Partnership for Zen effort to reduce homelessness on the streets of downtown Seattle.”
In the meantime, Santos said the fence building is part of a broader movement to reclaim and heal parts of the community that were torn away and damaged. She pointed to a similar moment in South Park, where citizens are working to reclaim the damages done to the area by the SR 99 highway.
“When they first started looking at this, mostly from an environmental standpoint, they started realizing there actually is a traceable reason to why you see higher rates of asthma, and other kinds of health conditions in poor communities of color. It’s because they’re located so close to a freeway. Well, you take a little while longer
and you realize they didn’t move there because the freeway was there, the freeway ran right through it,” she said.
Outside the fence that is currently in place, a man with a face like mud beaten into tiny hillocks wanders with a blanket over his shoulders that he then pulls over his head and continues to stagger.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.