By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Senior citizens filed into City Hall. They were there to protect their homes as the city and the county plans to add a massive homeless shelter in their neighborhood, which is already flooded with homeless people.
But, mostly, they recounted what had already been lost.
“In the Chinatown-International District (CID), we originally had a tree that was gorgeous, just gorgeous, then that tree was destroyed by the homeless,” said one woman, speaking through an interpreter in public comments. “We have lost our beautiful tree.”
The same might be said, with not a shade of untruth, about the CID, and perhaps the entire city itself, since both have been subject to years of neglect and abandonment, according to some of the protesters.
But if Seattle has suffered, the CID has been scourged with multiple plagues of almost biblical proportions.
Hammered by multiple homeless shelters placed there without community input or, in this case, any notice, the criminal elements that prey on the unhoused have preyed on the many seniors that live there.
“We sympathize with the street people,” said another woman. “But they have not been kind to us.”
The protest took place at a Seattle City Council meeting on Sept. 20 that was convened to discuss other matters. But so urgent did the CID residents, and their supporters from other parts of the city feel, that they flooded City Hall.
They spoke of random beatings, assaults, robberies, burglaries, car thefts, and harassment even of the disabled—and an inadequate, nay, nonexistent city response. They implored the city to come up with a safety plan or at least put a temporary hold on the construction of the shelter. They spoke of feelings of defeat, since the district is being hit with both a transportation hub and now a homeless hub.
And their fatalism and sense of being wronged began to turn to anger as they chastised public officials asking them to build the shelter inside City Hall itself.
Or they said, if officials were really concerned about the recovery of homeless people with mental illness, they should choose an environment where they could breathe clean air and have a better environment, not the current dregs of an industrial area, where the current shelter is planned.
The shelter is planned to be located at 1000-1050 Sixth Avenue South, 831 Seattle Boulevard, and 831 Airport Way South, just at the edge of the CID.
Throughout the whole mixture of rage, helplessness, hopelessness, and grief, came an awareness that racism was still alive and well in 2022. Residents of the CID and others expressed astonishment, sadness, and disbelief.
One woman told of her husband, who is disabled, being beset upon and harassed by homeless people.
“And they broke in, and in a burglary stole the embroidery equipment of the woman who lives in the basement, and they punched the neighbor who lived on the third floor,” she said.
One man noted drug users on his doorstep along with human feces and businesses that had been broken into multiple times in a single week.
“You want to move in 500 more people? Five-hundred more homeless with all manner of problems? Think about that. Think about what you’re letting happen,” he said.
Council President Debora Juarez later said that a current shelter, which the mega complex is intended to replace, already has 269 people, while the planned expansion will bring the total to 420 people. But it was not clear if she had included the approximately 50 people that will be housed in micro housing and approximately the same number brought in by an RV camp, both on the same land.
Meanwhile, community members said they were blindsided by the announcement without any warning or consultation.
Tanya Woo, a community organizer, asked the council to pause implementation of the facility “to do the proper outreach and engagement.”
The community is also asking for a public safety plan that appears to be nonexistent, she and others said.
“The county is putting this facility in place, expecting the city to have all the resources available and that’s not what we’re seeing, and we really need that in place,” said Woo.
Echoing her concerns, business owners and residents talked of violent crime with no police response.
Kim Nguyen, who owns a beauty school next to the current encampment, which the shelter is meant to replace, said that when she has called the police during crimes, “the police never come.”
She said, “I would like the government to take care of crime first before you build anything.”
The soon-to-be permanent chief of the Seattle Police Department (SPD), Adrian Diaz, has previously assured the Northwest Asian Weekly that “SPD commits to continue its work with city partners to help keep this area safe.”
Earlier this year, SPD added patrols and deployed a mobile precinct around the area of 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street.
Bettie Luke, sister of Wing Luke, former assistant state attorney general, and leader of the eponymous museum, said the community was being devastated by the combination of a planned transit hub in the area and now a homeless hub.
“It is outrageous that there is a double jeopardy of two projects to propose to put in the CID,” she said.
Others questioned why the CID was chosen and seemed to wonder if it was because it is known that dangerous elements often surround homeless sites.
“Look at an actual map and you’ll find unauthorized tent encampments surrounding low-barrier shelters,” she said, referring to those that allow unfettered access to beds and services.
“Those encampments often contain people who prey on shelter clients—drug dealers, sex traffickers, sex offenders, and illegal weapons.”
A number of protesters asked why the city and county could not choose to place the unhoused in sites around the city and region.
“These grand projects have nothing to do with the safety of the community. How come you don’t spread the homeless to every single community? They should be spread to communities that have better air and more personal space. That would be helpful for those who have mental illness, too,” said a woman who identified herself as Beth. “With the government being unable to handle all the crime these days, and then this grand plan is totally irresponsible and unfair to us.”
Some even hinted that there could be alternate plans.
Sharon Lee, director of the Low Income Housing Institute, suggested creating more “tiny house villages” around King County and Seattle.
“We currently have 11 tiny house villages, and they work very well, and they include people with high acuity, mental illness, and frailty, and I believe it is racist to be putting more people in the CID,” she said. “I believe it is possible to house homeless people in a dignified and respectful way.”
Lee also noted that the current shelter was established as a measure to address the pandemic.
Mike Donnelly, the building manager for the former immigration building, next door to the current shelter, said that for years there never seemed to be any problem with the William Booth Center, a shelter for veterans. But now, he said, “Outside the gates, no one takes responsibility.”
It was not until Woo contacted the media that the county began coming to clean several times a week.
Vivian Chau, owner of New An Dong, said the CID was becoming a ghost town, with businesses being forced out. She mentioned the recent decision of Bartell Drugs to close.
Anger began to rise in the throats of some speakers as they ended their allotted one minute in shouts.
Connie So, president of OCA Asian Pacific Advocates of Greater Seattle and a professor in American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, said that discrimination, redlining, and exclusion were not merely in the past.
“It’s not historical. It continues,” she said. “Now once again, we have to stop the government bullying us again.”
A few speakers asked the officials to house the homeless in their own space.
“Hey, government, if you don’t want to hear us, how about you let them live by government buildings? This building is extremely safe, and it’s extremely suitable for them to move here,” said one.
Willon Lew of OCA told the Northwest Asian Weekly, “The message that needs repeating, and I heard it during the public commentary, is that residents and businesses are sympathetic to the homeless and even support them the best they can with free food and haircuts. It’s the negative predatory element associated with the homeless that carries over into the CID and people.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.