By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Through the foliage, in Hing Hay Park, we see a shirtless man put his arms around a woman.
Nearby, a man blackened with soot, a cigarette butt in his fingers, reclines in shabby clothes in a pool of darkness under a tree. After we pass through, we turn and realize two of our numbers are missing. Two young women who joined the Seattle Chinatown Block Watch recently, both in sunglasses and jeans, are now gone.
“Where are they?” someone asks, looking back into the tangle of men now reforming, blocking the path behind us.
Then, finally, Gary Lee, one of the volunteers, sights one of them way back in the middle of the park, handing out fliers to the ping pong players.
“They’re new,” he says. “They have a lot of enthusiasm.”
In a moment, the risk passes. But the larger, long-term risk of the snuffing out of the very existence of the Chinatown-International District (CID), which these young women are trying to protect, remains.
The fliers detail the establishment, by the city and county, of a new homeless center on the edge of the CID, adding 150 new beds, creating a total of 420 (not including around 100 more residents in micro units and RVs), on top of the area’s existing five shelters.
The establishment of the center, bringing unhoused people from all over the region into the neighborhood, was done with no community consultation although advocates say it will reduce the CID to ashes, given the myriad problems it is already facing.
“I wonder if they want to drive out all businesses and lower property prices,” speculates Lee.
Others say it is simply centuries of racism by which the government cuts down people of color and their homes.
Still, others say the government has intentionally chosen a welcoming community and taken advantage of its diverse groups that live together without a common voice and no power.
For one of the young women on the block watch, there is another answer. Given the high levels of older people who live in the CID who don’t speak English and are not technologically savvy, there is little penetration of social media and thus an inability of the community to organize and protest as others have.
“We’re still reeling from the effects of the Navigation Center,” says Lee, referring to the homeless shelter that was put into the community in 2017, also with no real community input.
Questions about outreach
Leo Flor, director of the King County Department of Community and Human Services, in emailed comments, said that the 6,000 people sleeping on the streets of King County “requires bold action.”
As for outreach, “King County, City of Seattle, and the King County Regional Homeless Authority (KCRHA) connected with more than a dozen community groups before the lease was transmitted to the King County Council,” he said. The property has been leased to the Salvation Army, which operated the shelter on the premises. The lease expires in November.
Flor noted that KCRHA conducted two community meetings. One of them was in the CID.
Lee, who is a member of the CID Public Safety Council, was present in July at a meeting of the Public Safety Forum, when the county “nonchalantly” announced the new shelter, he said.
“These meetings last about an hour, and the representative from the KCRHA just got up and, in less than 15 minutes, just said casually that there’s this done deal,” said Lee, in an interview.
“After the meeting, I thought, ‘Was I on vacation or something, how could I have missed something this big?’”
So he asked other members of the council.
“No one had heard of it,” he said.
The authorities’ response
For the county’s part, creation of the “expanded enhanced shelter and behavioral health services hub” is a way to deal with a situation that is already a fait accompli.
The site is already a shelter for 270 people. And the expansion will occupy adjacent land that is currently an encampment of tents and tarpaulins.
“The creation of this project’s additional shelter will provide a resolution to the encampment,” said Flor.
It was not immediately clear how the KCRHA would clear the encampment prior to construction, nor persuade those living there to move elsewhere in the meantime.
Still, Anne Martens, senior director of external affairs and communications for KCRHA, in a news release, stated that KCRHA was already having success in the CID. It stated, “75 people living in the CID at Dearborn Avenue and I-5 in an encampment “have been transferred to shelter, lodging, inpatient treatment, and housing resources, thanks to an intensive 6-week collaborative effort.”
Funding was provided by the state legislature. The work involved the KCRHA, the state Department of Commerce, the Washington State Patrol, the Washington State Department of Transportation, the City of Seattle, and outreach providers PDA (JustCARE) and REACH.
But for members of the council, it was not just the way the authorities announced the new shelter that gave them pause, but the lack of notice. The announcement was made in July.
The shelter is expected to open in the fall. Moreover, to some, the rationale was frightening.
Authorities said that they had chosen the site as a “last resort,” said Julie Nielson, a member of the council who has worked in the CID for many years. When she questioned the police representative at the meeting about whether he knew how harmful the influx of hundreds of new unhoused people—and particularly those that prey on them—would be, she said he responded that he knew.
When seeking to verify this response with the Seattle Police Department [SPD], a spokesperson asked that we “contact the Mayor’s Office for further info ‘about a shelter.’”
What will come?
The city is ponying up $5 million as part of a total $66.5 million to create a compound that will include a sobering center, micro housing units, an RV park, and that will add 150 beds to the total 270 beds already available. According to a news release from the county, people experiencing homelessness from downtown and other areas are the target.
Tanya Woo, a volunteer with the other neighborhood patrol, regularly hands out peanut butter sandwiches and bottled water to unhoused people in the CID. But last week, one of the volunteers next to her saw someone with a gun, so they left the encampment immediately.
She is worried about the increase of criminal activity, not particularly from any new unhoused residents, but from those that prey on them.
“We’ve seen the negative effects of the Navigation Center,” she said, referring to the homeless center installed in 2017 in the neighborhood despite vehement community opposition. “The drug deals that happen outside the center, illegal encampments, prostitution, and violence. As one example, the Seattle Indian Health facility across the street went before the International Special Review District Board to construct a fence between their facility and these encampments because they were afraid of stray bullets hitting their employees.”
Julie Neillsen knows this. After having worked with people experiencing homelessness for decades, she believes there has been a change in the last five years.
“It is harder to reach people, it is harder for them to come back,” she told the Northwest Asian Weekly.
But Nielson knows from her own experience how things have changed—and her experience raises questions about the possible futility of the county’s approach.
Neilsen was 15 when she took to the streets due to family circumstances. She fortunately found a group of “punk rock” friends that protected and sustained her.
She worked as a cotton candy spinner and funnel cake fryer at the fairgrounds, counter person at a donut shop, and a marketeer distributing leaflets on cars in parking lots. By the time she was 16, she had her first apartment. Decades later, she sits in a furnished room with bright lights and tasteful furniture around her as she conducts an interview over the Internet.
She wonders if the difference today among some unhoused people is the prevalence of a new kind of meth. “People who use it for long periods are in a constant fight or flight mode,” she said. “Chinatown is a war zone.”
One of the questions community advocates have raised for the KCRHA is its rates of success and failure.
Martens said the Dearborn encampment was the third encampment that KCRHA and its partners have “resolved” as part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Right of Way Safety Initiative.
But crime continues and grows. Instances of armed robbery, smashed buildings, feces smeared on businesses, older people being attacked, and unknown numbers of unhoused people being preyed upon by drug dealers, rapists and thieves continue and increase.
Jamie Housen is the director of communications for the Office of Mayor Bruce Harrell. The
“SPD continues to maintain emphasis patrols at 12th and Jackson in Little Saigon, including at night,” he said in an email. “However, the city continues to face a police staffing crisis which impacts how officers are deployed citywide. Harrell has put forward a comprehensive recruitment plan to try to bring more officers to Seattle, in addition to ongoing retention efforts.”
Still, say community advocates, the new shelter will only compound the problem.
The shelter, to encourage use by people who otherwise might be reluctant to be confined overnight, allows open ingress and egress. According to the KCRHA, this helps with healing.
“Enhanced shelter allows a person to stabilize without having to check out every morning and check back in every night and allows steady access to bathrooms, showers, and supportive services like healthcare,” states the news release.
But some who work and live in the community fear that means even more trouble in the CID.
“Where do you think these people are going to roam during the day?” asked Nielson.
“And more importantly, there are already criminal elements who come to prey on them. How is this not going to attract more?”
Such sentiments might have been said of the Chinese not too long ago. Bettie Luke, another advocate, prepared a timeline starting with the destruction of the first Chinatown and the massacre of Chinese in Wyoming in the early 20th century, all the way down to Sound Transit’s recent plan to lop off a large portion of the CID for construction of a new transit hub, flooding the rest with truck traffic, street shutdowns, and pollution. Luke estimates 230 jobs will be lost and 27 businesses shuttered.
Woo, too, feels grimly aware of displacement. The imposition of the new shelter “shows a continued pattern of the city and county implementing projects near our community without addressing any of the impacts this will cause the community,” she said in an email. “I also believe they are taking advantage of our community believing that we will quietly accept this.”
As the group hands out fliers to store owners, who enthusiastically come out of their shops to greet them, a beggar with a wisp of hair standing like a small black cloud over his head, in rags, comes up asking for money. Bystanders waiting for their bubble tea watch impassively, their faces heavy.
No one has any cash.
The increasing presence of people lying in doorways or crouched on the sidewalk has another, more subtle effect on the community, said Richard Taylor, another member of the patrol.
Taylor, a former English professor who now lives with his wife in the Uwajimaya Village Apartments, said it may seem insensitive to worry about people who actually have housing when there are so many unhoused.
“But when you walk by someone who’s bleeding or lying on the ground and you turn away because there’s nothing you can do, it can be dehumanizing,” he said.
“Of course we want to help them,” said Woo. “But why do so many shelters have to go in the CID?”
Flor stated that the KCRHA and its partners have had a region-wide approach with operations in Auburn, Bellevue, Federal Way, Issaquah, Kent, Kirkland, Redmond, Renton, SeaTac, Shoreline, and White Center. It was not immediately clear how many of these were related to isolating groups during the pandemic.
“The agencies involved will continue to partner with community-based organizations and residents in and around the area while service planning is underway,” he wrote. “We welcome partnership from the community to ensure the success of the project.”
A meeting will be held in Hing Hay Park on Thursday, Sept. 8, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. “to learn more, discuss next steps, and to hear the opinions of the community,” said Lee in a message.
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.