By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The man is wearing saggy sweatpants, an old baggy down coat, a gray tattered hat, and he carries a blanket and a white garbage sack over his shoulder. It is night in the Chinatown-International District (CID) on a forgotten street corner under an overpass.
When Tanya Woo, who has been leading a night watch for over two years, hands him a bottle of water and food, he smiles in a look of sadness and humility that shows he appreciates her kindness.
In fact, it appears that the whole community—both the housed and unhoused—appreciates the kindness and persistence of Woo as she has led the block watch—or community watch, as some call it—to provide food and clothing to those living in encampments in the neighborhood. Today, to the delight of many in the community and beyond, Woo announced her candidacy for the Seattle City Council, District 2, which represents the CID, Beacon Hill, Columbia City, Mount Baker, and Rainier Beach, where she lives now, to name a few of the neighborhoods.
As an extension of her work on the streets, Woo has also organized and led protests against the bad policies that have resulted in the very spillage of human beings across the CID and the concentration of poverty in South Seattle.
Community observers described her as skilled at forming coalitions, masterful at listening to opposing views, courageous in helping others—and persistent.
“I’ve known Tanya since she was born,” said community advocate Betty Lau. “She’s able to bring together people who are polar opposites in meeting the needs of the unhoused.”
Added Matt Chan, a senior affiliate instructor at the University of Washington whose documentary work has made him recognized among Hollywood’s leading producers, “Tanya listens with compassion and makes sure people are heard and that their voice matters. Her work providing mutual aid to the unhoused, on the streets, has shown her ability to understand and empathize with people.”
Woo’s path to the streets started when she was a child. Her parents owned a bakery, and she remembers a homeless man coming in and regularly stealing bread and cookies, putting them in his pockets.
“I said to my mother, ‘Mom, do you see what’s happening? Do you see what he’s doing?’ But she said, ‘He needs it, just let him have it.’”
Her father, who went back to school to become an attorney, eventually opened a law office in the bakery and served immigrants “and those outside of the system,” said Woo.
Woo and her family, growing up in Beacon Hill, were witness to the daily neglect and impoverishment brought about by failed government policies.
Woo’s mother, an immigrant from Indonesia, would tell her and her brother and two sisters to quickly get down on the floor and take a nap.
“But we’d say, ‘Mom, we’re not tired,’” said Woo. “But she’d say, ‘Get down anyway, it’s time to take a nap.’”
This happened regularly. And it wasn’t until Woo was slightly older that she realized the cause: there were regular gang shootings in the vicinity.
Her father, in fact, handled the case of a woman whose daughter had been killed by stray bullets hitting her in a car—from a gang shooting.
“I remember going to court every day with my sisters and the lady crying throughout and seeing what it was like to lose a loved one,” she said.
In her campaign, Woo will emphasize community-based solutions. Her focus will be on public safety, housing, and homelessness. But, she insists, solutions must be found by listening intently to members of the community, both housed and unhoused, a process that has largely been lacking in recent policy decisions by the city and county.
“Tanya’s strongest attribute is how she listens to people before acting,” said Chan.
Defending a neighborhood
When Woo helped lead opposition to a megaplex homeless shelter in the CID last year, it was not because she is anti-homeless, she and community advocates say.
Rather, it was because the authorities planned and executed the expansion of one of 18 already existing shelters in the neighborhood without even notifying or consulting the community.
As a member of the CID Public Safety Council, Woo found, at the very first meeting with the county in September, that the county had already signed a lease in May and was planning to open the 500-bed shelter in November.
“No one had heard about it. I mean, if someone was going to open a shelter in your neighborhood, wouldn’t you want to know?” said Woo.
The county had failed to establish a good neighbor agreement, of the kind that fosters good relationships between those living in the shelter and the rest of the neighborhood.
Moreover, both the city and county were concentrating poverty in one area. (The CID already has a poverty rate between 42% and 34%, more than double the rest of the city, according to the Urbanist.)
And, in conversations over the years with people living in encampments, Woo heard them explain why they did not want to go into shelters in the first place.
In many cases, no pets are allowed, which are equivalent to people’s families. Families must be split up, since many shelters are divided by gender. Some shelters are religious in nature and frown upon LGBTQ people or expect a certain kind of religious affiliation.
These are all the kinds of things Woo heard people saying.
Not enough resources
At the same time, Woo was exposed to some of the same kind of violence that those living on the street regularly endured. The CID has perhaps the highest incidents of assaults, rapes, and robberies in the city, and Woo and her fellow volunteers at times also faced violence. They encountered people with guns, or people would try to punch them.
“It’s very saddening when you know people prey on the unhoused and the encampments when there is a lot of drug addiction and there aren’t many services, so I think when people talk of marginalized communities, it definitely includes the unhoused,” said Woo.
Violence fostered violence.
In the swirling days of the pandemic and anti-Asian hate crimes, some of the violence spilled over into the streets of the CID, and some of the senior citizens in the neighborhood were also attacked.
Woo and others helped organize them to march on city hall and give testimony, not only against the expanded shelter, but also to ask for a small fraction of the city’s budget for services so the CID could handle these problems through community-based solutions. They asked for money for behavioral health programs, increased housing, and support for the businesses that were being hard hit by violence.
While Woo is optimistic that the two social workers the city dedicated to the community will make a difference, she is candid that there needs to be much, much more.
Organizing a community
Observers marvel at the way Woo organized an entire community.
“Tanya is one of those rare people who combines creativity with intelligence and compassion in the service of others,” said Lau, a representative of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, which represents over 21 community groups. “She brilliantly organized and led the fight to get King County to halt expansion of the megaplex until community concerns are fully addressed. She stands up for those without a voice or place at the table—from immigrants and refugees to those without a place to call home. Under her leadership, the seniors turned out to protest, time after time. It’s a historic first for Seattle.”
For Woo, however, she credits others in her coalition, such as activist Beth Koo, and adds that, “The seniors were waiting for the opportunity.”
Woo says that her motivations go back to the day her father died, when she was 16.
He was bailing water out of the family building’s basement, which had flooded, when he suffered a massive heart attack. Woo was on a plane back from Indonesia, where she was visiting relatives. And when she arrived, her father was not at the airport. Her uncle found him.
After that, Woo found support from her friends on the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team. Her family had always been deeply involved in the community. Her grandfather was the founder of the Luck Ngai classical Cantonese Opera performance entourage, and her father in his ongoing service to the community was said by the late Donnie Chin, the head of the International District Emergency Center (IDEC), to be ahead of his time, to be “committed to solving problems before they happened,” said Woo.
When the family building, the Louisa Hotel, which had given occupancy to generations of poor residents of the community, partially collapsed after a fire in 2013, Woo jumped in to help. Today, the hotel has been converted to a combination of market rate housing used to subsidize affordable housing, known as workforce housing.
According to Woo, the family takes a lower rate of return to make affordable housing possible.
She said her involvement in the long process of getting financing was part of the responsibility of the younger generation in “making the built environment useful for generations to come.”
She added, “Many of the younger generation have stepped up.”
Forming a block watch
Her leadership in the block watch and protests commenced while she was working at KING 5 News on the assignment desk. After work, she would drive through the neighborhood and sometimes sit in her car for hours and watch what was happening.
She saw people breaking windows. And later, she saw vandalism. After noticing others also in their cars watching the violence, she put out a call on social media.
When between 25 and 30 people showed up, she was enthused.
“Knowing that there were a lot of people who cared in the community and that we could make a difference and bring back hope was really powerful,” she said.
Inclusion and accountability
Woo has led elected officials, besides volunteers, through the streets of the CID at night to meet both business owners and those living in encampments.
“We go into encampments and the people who live there are extremely nice and generous, you get to know our unhoused neighbors and they’re not the scary unknown entity. They really do care, they’ve just fallen into unfortunate circumstances, maybe they’re experiencing a lot of pain, and we see the terrible effects of addiction,” she said.
Her experiences have made her want to hold those who have obtained most of the contracts for homelessness more accountable.
Says Woo: those who are the most effective are underfunded and sometimes not even paid.
Samuel Wolff, senior project manager for LEAD, a harm-reduction approach to drug addiction and homelessness under the Public Defender Association, praised Woo as a “persistent advocate” and for collaborating with LEAD.
“In LEAD, we believe that solutions to public safety issues require the provision of support which meets the needs of those experiencing extreme poverty, who are unhoused, and/or who have unaddressed behavioral health issues. Tanya’s support for such solutions has been valuable. I have also appreciated her push to bring more voices to the table as we collectively work to build a better city.”
Woo said “having an advocate on the City Council” would help bring transparency and accountability to other groups that have contracts from the county and city.
Neglect across the city
Other communities have begun to model their own community watches on Woo’s night watch. “The issues in the CID are emblematic of the issues being faced in other parts of South Seattle,” she said. “In chatting with Beacon Hill folks or in Rainier Valley, it’s the same issues that we’re seeing over and over again, such as public safety and housing and homelessness and also the sense of not having a voice, of being forgotten. There are so many minority communities and they’re all very proud of their communities and so it’s just uplifting those voices, finding those voices, and making sure they’re being heard and being advocated for.”
Mahlon can be contacted at email@example.com.