By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
King County Executive Dow Constantine on Oct. 14 called off the expansion of a homeless shelter in the Chinatown-International District (CID) after months of protests by community members who said that it would increase violence in their troubled neighborhood.
But community organizers were puzzled by an earlier statement, issued the day before, in which Constantine alluded to “paid political agents” who he said had worked to “hijack” community concerns “to create conflict, division, and hate toward the unhoused.”
Nevertheless, an air of celebration filled a rally on Oct. 15 that was originally planned to raise funds for a lawsuit against the county.
Lion dancers swirled and cavorted in the square of Hing Hay Park. Around 100 residents turned out despite unhealthy levels of wildfire smoke.
But organizers say the battle is far from over.
They want a community safety plan and a community engagement plan, both of which are necessary to stop the increasing levels of violent crime and personal assaults in the neighborhood. Leaders of nightly block watches say the violence is committed not only by people with mental illness or substance abuse problems inundating the CID from over a dozen shelters concentrated in the area, but by drug dealers and others who prey on the unhoused.
“Homicides are up, violent crimes are up,” said Woo, who volunteers for one of the CID patrols.
Local businesses have repeatedly said that when they call the police for assistance, there is no response.
“We also don’t have a neighborhood agreement with the shelter,” said Woo. Shelters in other neighborhoods have such agreements, she said.
Both the Downtown Emergency Service Center main shelter and the Seattle Navigation Center have “good neighbor plans” with the community, as does the planned shelter in Eastgate.
Demands for an apology
For months, protests went ignored, and demands by the community unanswered. So when Constantine came out with his initial statement, blaming “paid political agents,” organizers were confused.
Their first meeting with the city and county had been on Sept.. 8, according to Woo.
“We were just preparing for our second meeting, scheduled for the next day, Oct. 14, when we got that statement,” she said.
As they headed to Union Station to meet with Leo Flor, director of the department of community and human services for the county, and representatives from the mayor’s office and others, “everyone had questions,” said Woo.
But they did not get any answers—or an apology.
“They kept diverting to another topic when we would ask,” said Woo.
It was during this meeting that Flor told them the expansion of the megaplex homeless shelter would be put on hold, according to Woo.
Building trust and balancing priorities
At the same time, Constantine put out a statement that the funding allotted for the expansion was federal money that had to be used by a certain date, and therefore he would propose to the King County Council that it be used to get people off the streets into existing facilities as soon as possible. More specifically, the funding would be used to give one-time wage increases to service providers at the existing 270-person shelter, which would continue in operation for another five years.
In addition, the county would divert funding to other areas that were ready to provide shelter to people experiencing homelessness, such as the Green River area, in South King County.
“It is clear that building trust and resolving underlying concerns about the conditions in the community today will take considerable time before we can move forward with any added service capacity. At the same time, the crisis of homelessness—and the health of every person living outside—requires urgent and immediate action,” said Constantine in his second statement, on Oct. 14.
“Recognizing these competing tensions, it is incumbent on King County to change course so we can utilize term-limited, one-time federal funding and invest in actionable projects in the months ahead.”
Still some confusion
Members of a work group formed with the city and county about the planned shelter expansion said Constantine’s earlier comments could serve to distract from the county’s responsibility to make up for insufficient outreach.
“There is no one in our group that would be considered a ‘paid political agent,’” Matt Chan, a member of the group, told the Northwest Asian Weekly. “It was divisive and racially motivated to distract from his lack of real community engagement.”
He added, “Dow Constantine bringing in a statement like this diminishes our efforts and shows a lack of grace on his part. We have publicly requested an apology for his statement to our community.”
Tanya Woo, another member of the group, said it was not clear to whom Constantine was referring.
“We’re still scratching our heads,” she told the Northwest Asian Weekly.
Gary Lee, another community organizer, also told us, “It was like he was saying there was someone who was trying to manipulate us. No one in our group has received any money.”
The county has still not fully addressed community needs, said Chan.
“By the executive conflating our efforts with a personal vendetta he has with certain people in the media is on him,” he said. “We welcome anyone who supports us and has the interests of the CID at heart, but we can’t control how others tell our story.”
Community advocate Betty Lau said the first statement had obscured the real problem between the county and the CID.
“Was not our community subverted by not having prior notice or any discussion of the expansion prior to having it sprung on us?” she said in an email.
Advocates hope, going forward, that this sea-change will usher in increased engagement.
“This win came about because the seniors rose up. The county never expected them to become a force. But we don’t want to have to rally the troops every time there’s an issue,” said Woo. “We hope the county and city will continue to have a dialogue with the community going forward as we work to repair past and current harm to the CID.”
Lau said, “This was a multi-generational effort. Each senior is cherished and loved by extended family members throughout Greater Puget Sound, so ignoring them wasn’t smart. Community aunties and uncles stepped up to help, contributing their accumulated wisdom from past social and racial justice advocacy. Then there’s the leadership, brilliantly led by Tanya Woo, Gary Lee, and Matt Chan, who put together a working team.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.
John Ikeda says
Great article. Tell Dow, King County is 2,100 Square Miles large and the CID boundary is less than 1.
Surely there are other locations to consider …. an empty Frys Store in Renton or the Kroger/Albertsons merger which will have closed stores to consider. Use the main building for dormitory room housing and the parking lot for Tiny Homes and RV parking. Work hard at Drug Rehabilitation and sort out your Mentally Ill and give them structured help.
Partner with the US Govt and use the GSA Warehouses in Auburn as a Transition Work Center where people are trained to build Nice Tiny Homes that are County approved for quick siting to supplement the Affordable Housing crisis. This builds Skills, Self Esteem and brings Hope.
Who knows, if you can instill a sense of “Ownership” in someone, usually it leads to “Responsibility” which is the root of a good community.