By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
A man in a dark leather jacket with a bald head and glasses stopped at the edge of Hing Hay Park and was sizing up the more than 100 people sitting in the square or holding signs to protest a new homeless shelter.
“You think if you get rid of them, that you’ll be safe?” he yelled in a loud, booming voice.
Some of the organizers of the rally started to make their way over to him.
“You won’t!” the man yelled. Everyone turned and saw a slight young man in a blazer, holding a sign, saying something to the man.
“F— you!” let loose the man in a heavy, throaty yell, who turned and marched violently off.
Thus were the protesters, which included some as old as 90, young children barely out of kindergarten, residents, business owners, community leaders, and nearly every demographic from the Chinatown-International District (CID), reminded that it was not simply another new homeless shelter they were opposing in their neighborhood.
It was, rather, an overarching atmosphere of hate and racism that has fueled nearly constant violence against them.
“It’s not that we’re anti-homeless,” said Matt Chan, a community advocate and one of the speakers. “It’s about government malfeasance.”
While speakers hurled imprecations at the government for leading them on then abandoning them, longtime residents of the neighborhood told of casual and near-daily acts of violence they and their children encounter.
From the front of the crowd, holding a microphone, Chan said, “Politicians show up for photo ops, but then when we really need them, they’re nowhere to be seen.”
In the rear of the crowd, standing on the steps of Hing Hay Park, Sharon Yu, 51, was listening. After a few moments, she told the Asian Weekly, “Yesterday, a man spit in the face of my daughter.”
Her daughter, who is 7, was standing in the doorway of their building waiting for a friend to take the family to a park.
“He spit at her right here,” she said, pointing to the corner of her eye. The man also yelled something that was garbled, but Yu, who came running out from behind the door with her son, couldn’t make it out. Now pointing to another Chinese woman in her 30s, Yu added, “She was also spat upon in her face.”
She added, urgently, “You must write this down to let the government know that we are hurting.”
The rally was organized by multiple community groups and was held on Sept. 8 from 5-6:30 pm. It was intended to oppose the opening of a new, expanded homeless shelter at 1000-1050 Sixth Avenue South, 831 Seattle Boulevard, and 831 Airport Way South, the site of the current Salvation Army shelter, with adjoining land providing housing and a site for RVs. Community groups are outraged that the shelter was announced without community input.
“The mega shelter never had a public hearing!” said Mei-Jui Lin, president of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, another speaker. “When I worked for the King County Council, there always had to be a public hearing for any development.”
Four hours before the rally started, organizers met with local officials. According to the organizers, the officials said they had, in fact, reached out to 12 people in the CID prior to deciding on the shelter.
Organizers also said that officials might hire a contractor without a competitive bidding process. It was not immediately clear if this would decrease quality, safety, oversight, and ramp up the speed of opening.
At the rally, speakers referred to the callousness of local officials in choosing to dump more unhoused people in the neighborhood, which is already home to multiple shelters, and, as a result, a draw for those that prey on the homeless. Crime and violence in the last few years has skyrocketed.
“How dare you schedule a homeless shelter in our neighborhood!” shouted Bettie Luke, sister of former Washington state assistant attorney general Wing Luke.
“There are empty lots and empty buildings in white neighborhoods—and the fact that you do not schedule there, is absolutely flat out racist!”
Another CID resident, also sitting in the back of the crowd, nodded her head and said, “This is how we think.”
This resident gave her name as Li, said she was 80, and originally from Guangdong. She spent 20 years washing dishes at a restaurant in the neighborhood before retiring on a little over $800 a month. With gray hair tied back in a ponytail, she talked of having a gold chain, a personal investment, ripped right off the neck.
“Why doesn’t the government find a farm somewhere where they can send these people to do healthy labor while they rehabilitate, maybe that would be better for them,” she speculated.
When asked why the government should support her, through Social Security, and not support the homeless, Li responded, “We follow the law. I don’t destroy things or threaten people’s safety. We don’t cause damage or do drugs.”
From the front, Luke continued, “To you, government officials, I say, you use one disenfranchised group and hurt the other in the aftermath! I want you to schedule this in your own backyard!”
Members of the two community night patrols, which have been walking the streets after dark for years, and handing out food and water in the encampments, say it is the drug dealers, gangs, and other criminals that take advantage of the unhoused that are the primary threat and will be drawn in greater numbers by the new shelter, which will bring the number of beds there to 500.
“They are not only a danger to us, but will be a danger to themselves,” said Luke, speaking through a microphone at the rally.
Anger at elected officials was also shown in signs.
Gary Lee, a volunteer with the Seattle Chinatown Block Watch, held a sign with a picture of King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who represents District 8, with McDermott’s face in the middle of a red circle with a diagonal red line running through it.
Others held signs that said, “It’s racist,” referring to the decision to place the new, expanded shelter in the CID without community input.
The director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services, Leo Flor, has said that the drastic state of homelessness in the county, with 6,000 people sleeping in the open every night, requires bold action. Flor has also said the agency has set up shelters around the region.
“We know there’s a need,” said Nora Chan, founder of Seniors in Action Foundation, another speaker. “We are not against homelessness, but crime is on the rise and it never stops.”
Community activists say the CID is already home to five shelters (at the rally, Chan said there were 10 in the larger vicinity). And they say the CID is already suffering from centuries of marginalization, including the worst air in the city, from relentless transportation projects, such as I-5, that cuts through the district.
Over a little more than a century, the community has been forced to move to new locations three times.
“First, Chinatown was on the waterfront, then Pioneer Square, and now we have landed here. This is our home. It’s going to be here forever,” said Lin.
More recently, during the height of the pandemic, when police were fighting with protesters, looters and rioters seemed to be funneled into the CID and damaged building fronts and attacked residents.
“Now they’re going to dump another shelter in the CID,” said Faye Hong, a community leader, in an interview. “It’s ridiculous.”
For older residents, it feels like the end.
Asked what would happen if she had to move from the low-income housing where she lives, Li said she would not be able to plan for it.
“It feels like we don’t have tomorrow,” she said.
A 90-year-old community member, speaking at the rally, said there are thousands of seniors like herself living in the community.
There are other reasons why community members are fearful. Rumors reflect even worse scenarios.
Esther Chan, a real estate agent who joined the rally, said that violent gangs from Everett were planning to move down to the area once the new shelter opens. She said she learned about the gangs from the police after her son had some of his belongings stolen by them. “Don’t even go near them,” the police told her.
She was walking, along with Li, and several other older women in the rear of a crowd that massed at the front and scattered out in twos and threes down the street as organizer Tanya Woo, at the end of the rally, led the marchers to view the site of the future shelter.
The crowd boiled at the front like a mass of clouds as it came up to the fencing and closed-off street where an encampment lies.
Gei Chan, another organizer, brought up the rear, making sure Li and another older woman, with a walker, could safely cross Dearborn Street to get a sight of the territory.
“It’s going to stretch from that side of the fence, covering all these blocks, to there,” said another organizer, pointing out a large swathe of land as large as a train station.
Then something frightening happened.
The crowd dissipated. The final marchers straggled away behind their signs. And the street was empty.
This reporter stayed and struck up a conversation with a pleasant and friendly homeless man.
That was not the problem.
As the homeless man departed, and this reporter was putting away his notebook, he looked up to see two large men looming towards him. One of them, though not the same bald man who had yelled at the rally earlier, in appearance was similar. He had a shaven or bald head, was wearing some kind of leather jacket, and was scowling as if he wanted to kill someone.
This reporter left quickly.
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.