By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Almost 100 residents from the Chinatown-International District (CID), attended a King County Council meeting that took place on Sept. 27 to protest a homeless shelter expansion. They shared stories of break-ins, assaults, harassment, property destruction, and other personal violence.
They all returned to a common theme: Their community is no longer safe.
“I was raped in the CID,” said the last speaker, communicating through Zoom. “It has had a big impact on the rest of my life.”
She was speaking so fast and the councilmembers appeared to have so little reaction, that it almost seemed like they may have misheard her.
Tearfully, she talked about trying to return to the CID but encountering more violence.
Violence was the theme—and the lived experience of the several dozen who spoke. Almost a hundred showed up though, spilling from the packed auditorium into a courthouse downstairs.
“We just witnessed 10 broken windows last night,” said a woman who has lived in the CID for 42 years. While she and others were eating in a restaurant, “12 mentally-ill people broke in and took food off the table.”
A man said there had been seven homicides in this year—the last one “in broad daylight, last Thursday at 2 p.m.”
He noted that according to Seattle Police Department (SPD) Chief Adrian Diaz, there are not enough resources to cover the CID.
As he broke up into tears, the speaker said he was not cold-hearted about the homeless. He described performing CPR on one homeless man, saving his life, on the day his own father died from COVID.
But at the same time, he said, “I saw a homeless person sucker-punch a lady, and now he’s back on the street.”
Other speakers talked about SPD officers not responding to violent crimes, apparently as a result of lack of staffing.
Currently, there is a planned expansion in the works for the Salvation Army SODO Shelter, which is on the edge of the CID. The expansion is meant to create capacity to absorb a tent encampment nearby. This expansion would increase the number of people living in the shelter. It is not entirely clear how many spaces will be allotted to an RV park or to the planned micro-housing that will be attached to the expansion.
Moreover, while the current Salvation Army SODO Shelter focuses on treating veterans, the expanded version of this shelter will not necessarily share that focus The Salvation Army SODO Shelter will cease its operations in November.
Protesters of this expansion, many of whom are CID community members, have grown suspicious of claims by government authorities which have not jibed with their own experiences.
For instance, Mei-Jui Lin, president of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, which represents 21 organizations in the CID, said she was perplexed that King County Executive Dow Constantine claimed he had spoken to a number of community organizations in advance of deciding on the shelter expansion.
“Why didn’t you reach out to us?” she said at the meeting. “We are the ones representing the CID.”
Frank Irigon, who led protests against plans to raze the CID 50 years ago to build the Kingdome, said, “It’s a shame when the county executive refuses to meet with people.” Turning to the crowd of mostly seniors sitting in the audience, he said, “These are the real voices of the CID. They should be heard!”
Gary Lee, a volunteer with the Seattle Chinatown Block Watch, said officials violated zoning laws in their shelter-planning. He said that a decree allowing emergency construction of shelters was linked to COVID-19, but the current planned shelter is not being built for pandemic-related purposes.
“You should terminate the lease and find another location away from the CID,” he said.
Earlier in the day, councilmembers had received Constantine’s 2023–2024 proposed budget, which includes $5.7 million for a sobering center for the shelter hub. The council will vote on the budget in November.
Lee also said that as a member of one of the community watches that does nighttime patrols, he has talked extensively with people on the streets experiencing homelessness and many reported they were told by authorities to go to the CID.
“Shame on you,” he said, addressing the council. “You guys are the ones who pushed the homeless to the CID. They say they were told to come down here. You’re creating problems so you can be the savior.”
As he spoke the last words, tensions reached a height and a frozen moment of silence reigned.
Gei Chan, another community watch volunteer, said, “I’ve talked to people on the streets. They don’t want to go to a shelter. That is not the best solution. Can you come up with other options, like tiny homes in different areas?”
Golden, a student at a beauty parlor across the street from the encampment in the CID, said the accumulation of needles and the unsafe behavior around the parlor threatens to close it down.
She does not dare to bring her kids there, making it difficult for her to continue her training.
“We have children like you guys,” she said. “I’ve been homeless as well. You see the problem, and it needs to be addressed.”
Julie Neilson, who has worked for years in the CID, pointed to the recent closures of a grocery store and a full-service drug store.
“How are these people supposed to get food and medicine for themselves?” she said. “What did the CID do to deserve this?”
Underscoring the racism that has been infused into many of the attacks that happened in the CID, against both senior citizens and children, Sandy Yu, a resident, held her phone up on speaker.
Her 7-year-old daughter’s voice came out tentatively and filled the council chambers.
“I’m scared right now, he got mad at me,” said her daughter, who was spat upon in the face by a homeless man and threatened. “I don’t want him to live near here, and I’m still scared.”
For many of these community members, violence also reflected a horrible lack of equity.
Several speakers said there are too many homeless shelters in the vicinity of the CID, with some claiming 20 shelters.
Tanya Woo, a community organizer, along with other community members, asked for the council to come up with a safety plan for the CID before bringing a whole new group of people who might prey on them—such as drug dealers and sex traffickers—into the district.
“We need you to set a precedent for the future, where high-impact policies [like this one] won’t keep happening,” she said.
Carmen Chan, a third-generation Japanese American, described her parents’ incarceration during World War II to councilmembers. She also said, “I’m shocked to learn about all the things planned for the CID.” She also indicated that the expanded homeless shelter will not be the only thing that shuts down parts of the CID for the next decade, but also a planned transit hub.
“Councilmembers, raise your hand if you feel safe walking in your neighborhood,” said one woman who described herself as having lived in the CID for 42 years. “Now raise your hand if you’ve walked through our neighborhood.”
Only council chair Claudia Balducci raised her hand. Balducci later clarified that other of her colleagues had also walked the district.
Referring to the 10 broken windows and the onslaught of a dozen people storming a restaurant to grab food from tables, from the night before, the speaker added, “Does Mercer Island or Medina have the same problems?”
After a moment, Balducci said, “I just want to say for the record that … [my colleagues and I] can see what you’re talking about.”
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.