By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Inside the Tsue Chong Company, a desolate floor of concrete reveals two pieces of oily paper. The first one says, “FINE CUT.” The second one, which also has Chinese writing, says, “EXTRA FINE CUT.”
These are the final remains, in human terms, of the once-proud business that for over 100 years made noodles and fortune cookies and where students took tours.
Above, in cavernous rooms the size of garages, hang fans the size of houses and an air conditioning unit the size of a mountain, it seems.
“We once closed these doors and dried out noodles in here by creating a dehumidifying atmosphere,” said Tim Louie, whose great grandfather founded the company in 1917 in a different location.
In April, a fire in a homeless encampment behind the length of the block threatened the building, which was built by Louie’s father and uncle in 1992. The fire burned straight upwards, consuming trees and a dumpster, according to a video shown to this newspaper.
In a petition started by neighbors and signed by Louie and circulating in the Chinatown-International District (CID), residents are asking the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which manages the land, the City of Seattle, responsible for keeping those WSDOT lands that pass through the city safe, and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) to clear the land.
“We, the undersigned residents, business owners, and landowners of Seattle’s CID, request the immediate removal of the encampment located within the district boundary along Interstate 5 between South King Street and South Dearborn Street,” it states.
But it’s not that simple.
There is no doubt that the neighborhood has been inundated with violence and fires and danger—from shootings to arson to harassment, both verbal and physical. Many residents feel that the city’s problems have been dumped into the CID—and the presence of the unhoused epitomizes this dynamic.
At the same time, many community leaders realize the unhoused need help.
“I’ve been in meetings with community members from Little Saigon,” said Nancy Sugg, medical director of Harborview’s Pioneer Square Clinic and Downtown Homeless Programs.
“They, time and again, say there needs to be a balance between saving their own community and getting these people help.”
Failure of institutions
The tug of war between looking out for the safety of the CID and saving those suffering from homelessness from further harm is not lost on Tanya Woo. Woo runs a night patrol of the CID. On a recent Sunday, she reported to the media that a man experiencing homelessness, who she and others said have been in and out of the district for two decades, punched an older woman in the face.
According to Woo and others, he was arrested and then released the following Wednesday. His charge of assault was dismissed without prejudice by reason of mental incompetency, she wrote in an email.
For her and others, his long string of violent behavior epitomizes the threats the CID faces.
“He assaulted two to three seniors last summer, he assaulted customers waiting in line at businesses, he tried to assault a child, spat on employees trying to remove him from their business. I had to ask him to leave the Chong Wa playfield when he approached us during Drill Team practice holding a stick, the list goes on and on,” she wrote.
“He does not usually attack adults but seems to target the most vulnerable in our community, unprovoked. He is also known for trespassing and harassment of local businesses. We believe many of his episodes may be affected by his drug addiction and mental health issues.”
But Woo said it is a failure of policies that results in such situations.
“This seems to be a constant cycle of assault, arrest, charge dismissal due to incompetence, release, and repeat. It’s unfortunate that the city continues to release him without any plans to help him with his addiction or mental health. It’s also frustrating having to deal with policies that cannot ensure the safety of the community,” she wrote. “This story is about how the system has failed to provide help for a man and how this is adversely affecting the larger community.”
A former student
Other community members also have compassion for those on the streets, but for other reasons.
“When I first saw T enter my class, he was a tall, gawky eighth grader and reminded me of a puppy before growing enough to match oversized paws,” said Betty Lau, using an abbreviation to protect the privacy of a former student.
Her student was later kicked out of his home by older brothers unwilling to take care of him (the parents were not around) and ended up in juvenile detention in Echo Glen.
“I had never heard of the place until I got a call from a counselor there asking me to visit. The counselor had asked him why his family didn’t visit. He said they didn’t like him and had thrown him out. He had no other family here. And no friends. The counselor asked, ‘Isn’t there anybody who likes you?’ And he said, ‘Yes, a teacher; Ms. Lau likes me,’” she said.
Ever since being released, he’s been homeless.
“Whenever we see each other in the Chinatown and Little Saigon, I ask how he is. He always says he’s fine, but he looks old beyond his years—skinny, as though wasting away, no front teeth anymore from lack of dental care. I encourage him to get help, get clean, finish school, that he’s still very intelligent, and it’s not too late for high school completion so he can move on with his life, to reconnect with his family. But he laughs and says it’s too late,” said Lau.
Who are those without homes?
According to Sugg, there is no one group of people that can be called “homeless.”
There are, of course, those suffering from mental health or substance abuse crises. But there are also families that have suffered from some disaster that have to live in cars. There are people in their 20s who were making $60,000 a year and then the economy collapsed, and they never thought they’d be in this situation. There are people who were living paycheck to paycheck and had a surprise medical bill.
“The only thing they have in common is that they are without a house,” she said in an interview.
Cities that have high housing prices are facing the bulk of the crisis.
“There have been studies, in cities without the high housing costs of places like Seattle and San Francisco, the problems are not as severe,” she said.
Moreover, such an exploding housing market penalizes anyone who falls afoul of a landlord just once. Those who have been evicted find it virtually impossible to get housing again.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, to community members like those in the CID, a few violent people living among encampments can shape perceptions, said Sugg.
The second floor of the Tsue Chong Company is now occupied by a food bank, Louie having sold his business in 2019 and the new owner moved the business to Kent.
On a recent afternoon, when senior residents of the CID were lined up on a ramp outside the building to receive food, someone from the encampment threw a water bottle that hit one of the older women in the back of the head. As we stood on the third floor of the building, looking out over part of the encampment, a tall, rake-thin man in a baseball cap carried an electronic appliance whose cord snaked behind him as he vanished.
“He’s going to sell that, some stolen goods,” said Louie.
But Sugg cautioned that those living on the streets, the majority, are subject to the same kind of violence, if not much worse, as that suffered by community members who are living in dwellings.
“Just like with any group, there are criminals among them, but again, this is true of those living in houses, too,” she said.
Most people living on the streets are in constant fear for their lives, property or safety.
“Families know that some of the people in the next tent are going to have guns,” she said.
This is one reason why violent unhoused individuals are able to cycle back to the streets.
“The police officers’ hands are tied. They need someone to press charges, but if you’re out on the streets and you know that by pressing charges you’re going to end up being targeted by this person, then you won’t do it,” she said.
The community’s response
The frustration of the community is palpable.
Garbage lines the streets and parking lots where the encampments lie. As we passed the other side of the encampment, an individual stared out blankly, a fatuous grin sickly painted on his face.
Most of the businesses along the street have been afflicted one way or another. Some are permanently closed. Others have been demolished with windows broken or doors kicked in.
The bottom floor of the Tsue Chong building, though vacant, has had its front door trashed—it is now covered by a board—and an inner office window still lies broken with pieces of glass hanging.
Yet the violence affects everyone.
Sugg described two individuals who had climbed their way out of homelessness and were living in affordable housing who were recently shot as bystanders.
Susan Woo, who leads the other night patrol, regularly takes pictures and calls the authorities when safety issues take place. She recently showed half a dozen night-time photos of police activity involving homeless encampments.
Still, it is not clear how the fire in the lot behind the Tsue Chong building started. As with other fires, it may have been from cooking.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Chinatown Block Watch is recruiting volunteers to join evening walks in the CID. Patrols are from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays and begin at Hing Hay Park.
“Our mission is to provide a presence in the neighborhood when the senior residents are out on their evening walks,” states a flier. “Please consider joining us.”
The city’s response
Mayor Bruce Harrell in May announced an initiative to donate over $1 million to the KCRHA.
Sugg said what is needed is more, much more, affordable housing, particularly of a kind where low-income people can mix with people of different socio-economic status.
“They can be pulled up,” she said, although adding that the idea was somewhat “utopian.”
The Harrel initiative has promised to buy an existing structure and turn it into affordable housing for unhoused people.
The structure, however, is in the Green Lake area.
Jamie Housen, director of communications for the mayor’s office, in response to emailed questions, said the Dockside Apartments in Green Lake, while “one element of the plan,” were not “the main thrust” of the announcement.
“Instead, it demonstrated the city’s commitment to creating and opening spaces for people experiencing homelessness to go, including permanent housing like Dockside, along with shelters and other emergency housing options, along with a new level of transparency to document to the public the progress of opening those locations,” he wrote.
One of the priorities of the mayor is to make coordination easier between the city and the KCRHA. Out of $173 million budgeted for homelessness related services, more than $118 million goes to KCRHA.
The city has also made available a website so that city residents can see where tents and RVs are concentrated.
In concert with the KCRHA, Housen said the city has already helped many in need.
In King County as a whole, nearly 800 households in King County have moved from homelessness to permanent housing since May of 2021 with federal Emergency Housing Vouchers made available through the American Rescue Plan.
In the CID, specifically “the City’s HOPE Team, in partnership with KCRHA and outreach providers, has facilitated approximately 140 referrals to shelter for those experiencing homelessness. Almost all referrals have been to 24/7 enhanced shelter or tiny house villages,” said Housen.
He added, “As for the specific encampment you mentioned, the city is aware of two encampments near this location. The city has been there this month to remove trash and debris as part of the Clean Cities Initiative. We will continue to monitor this encampment with our partners at WSDOT and KCRHA.”
Community members can report specific issues regarding unauthorized encampments through the Customer Service Bureau.
Still, it may take time to get a response—if at all.
“With roughly 1,000 documented sites of people living in tents or RVs or other vehicles throughout the city, it is extremely difficult for our Unified Care Team to respond immediately to every request for service, but these requests are absolutely critical to our ability to properly document, inspect, and monitor the scope of homelessness in the city. This data is what drives our response strategies and will show us what’s working and what isn’t,” said Housen.
To see where tents and RVs are concentrated, go to: experience.arcgis.com/experience/af548fd66fc94e98a5067b299b7d1209.
To contact the city’s Customer Service Bureau, go to: seattle.gov/customer-service-bureau/contact-us.
To join or learn more about the Seattle Chinatown Block Watch, email Susan Lee Woo at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.