By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Blaze was standing and watching workers tear down her home. Her face and brightly colored hair gave no sign of sadness or worry. Only her eyes grew wet and soppy from time to time.
“I’ve been waiting for housing for four days,” she said.
Across from her, workers from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), flanked by policemen, tore into tents and old bicycles.
One of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) workers skulked around with an axe he methodically but frenetically chipped against his leg.
“It’s to help tear things down,” he said.
The scene, according to community advocates from the Chinatown-International District (CID), who have been providing services to the unhoused for years and were on site to monitor the camp removal, was a short-time effort that may not solve the problems of the community—both the housed and the unhoused—in the long run.
The clearing of the encampment on King Street and Jackson Street, in fact, had been one of the action items community leaders have been pressing local government on for years.
KCRHA, however, contests this characterization, and points to the thousands of people it has gotten off the street as a newly established agency, as well as what it calls “resolutions” of six encampments. At the same time, a spokesperson reaffirmed its commitment to partner with the CID community.
“It’s important to recognize the hard work and complexity of the process,” said Anne Martens, senior director of external affairs and communications for the KCRHA. “This is the work of people helping people—it’s difficult, it’s complex, and it takes time.”
A lack of partnership?
But KCRHA has refused to enter into dialogue with community groups that tend to the unhoused, such as the CID Public Safety Council and the night watches, according to members of both.
“Actually, we were in several meetings with the CID Public Safety Council around the SoDo shelter, and it is a priority to have open communication with the community,” wrote Martens in an email.
At several meetings last year, the KCRHA shared information about the megaplex shelter with members of the safety council.
“We want KCRHA to continuously work with the community in partnership, rather than working at us or for us,” said night watch organizer Tanya Woo, who is also running for Seattle City Council.
CID Safety Council members say they have repeatedly asked for further dialogue with KCRHA.
Last year, Woo, Gary Lee, and other community advocates asked the city to provide them with a mere 5% of the massive budget allotted to the KCRHA—with no result.
Today, the removal of the encampment and the problems that appeared evident seemed a testament to the failure of the regional agency to coordinate better with the community.
“What I can say is that we understand the community’s concern and our efforts are driven by equity, social justice, and respect,” wrote Martens.
Take Blaze—not her real name.
Standing in the freezing air in only gray sweatpants and a sweat top, her frozen stare at the loss of the place where she lived for 6 months, seemed to reveal the failure of the system.
Blaze told the Northwest Asian Weekly that she was born in Missouri and joined the armed forces. In Iraq, after reaching the rank of staff sergeant as a medic, she was “blown up” by a 9-year-old suicide bomber. Her shattered hip was never replaced.
While in Fort Lewis receiving treatment, she was given fentanyl for pain, became addicted, and has never recovered.
She lived the last seven years on the streets of Tacoma, which she says is a much worse scene than here.
“There were lots of people getting murdered there,” she said.
In the encampment on King Street, she lived in a tent with friends and felt a higher degree of safety. She said her outreach worker from KCRHA had promised her four days ago to find her housing.
This reporter watched her hang back, timidly, then approach the woman who she said was her outreach worker. The woman ignored her for several minutes, then said something briefly.
The last that was seen of Blaze was her walking away across the parking lot under the freeway.
Martens agreed to contact the outreach worker for comments afterwards but was unable to reach her.
KCRHA claims that one of its characteristics that makes it suitable and apt for handling the homelessness crisis is that a significant number of its staff have shared that “lived experience.” They have been homeless, too. They say it creates empathy.
A supervisor of the agency’s outreach workers, named James (he did not give a surname), was a pastor in North Carolina until he got involved in drugs and even sex work, he said in an interview.
What got him out of it?
“It’s different for everyone, but one day I woke up and I was sleeping on the floor of a crack house, and I realized I can’t go on like this. I went back to church. There was a lot of support there,” he said. “So for me, it was faith based.”
He added, “It’s important to remember that these people have a soul and deserve help just like anyone else.”
Apparently, his experiences are not unique among KCRHA outreach workers.
As Blaze was walking away, she said, “There was this worker for the agency that used to do porn s—t and stuff like that and now she’s a case manager.”
Asked if she herself would ever want to work for KCRHA, she responded, “I’m not ready for that. I need housing.”
She said she also needs money. Her food stamp EBT card gives her a little over $100 for food a month, she said.
Commitment to the community
Another model for caring for the unhoused is one the community is perhaps more familiar with—but also has no long-term solutions for funding.
For their part, it is not led by those who have “lived experience”—they admittedly have never been homeless themselves. But, they say, it is their commitment to the community that animates them.
According to several members of the CID Night Watch, which heads out twice a week and hands out food, water, and hot chocolate to the unhoused, Woo frequently performs CPR on those suffering overdoses.
Several months ago, according to witnesses, Woo found a woman lying on the ground. Her heart had stopped beating and lying next to her was a syringe with naloxone, an injectable medication in the case of an overdose.
But the woman had not been able to inject it in time.
Woo used a nasal form—narcan—in the woman’s nose, then commenced CPR. The woman did not revive.
But Woo took down numbers of her grieving friends in the nearby encampment to offer support and resources.
Woo and her colleagues, including those on the CID Public Safety Council, have repeatedly failed to get funding from the local authorities for further programming or housing.
During today’s sweep, as the sound of tents being ripped down floated through the air, members of the CID Safety Council, while welcoming any support and action taken by the local government, were nevertheless hesitant to offer a full endorsement.
Gary Lee, a member of the safety council, said the encampment sweep was a rare occurrence.
“It’s like little league baseball for elementary school,” he said. “It only takes place during a couple of weeks out of the whole year.”
Added Lee, in a follow-up text, “Hopefully, the fences will be maintained so it’s not reoccupied too soon.”
Woo said she and fellow volunteers from the night watch had warned residents of the encampment in advance.
“There is one 75-year-old man who never comes out,” she said. “I hope he got out.”
In an email, Woo wrote, “I don’t think sweeps are the answer, but I’ve seen too many overdoses. I’ve seen our unhoused neighbors being victims of crime. It’s not safe for anyone there.”
She added that criminal elements prey on the unhoused as well as the housed.
“Unfortunately, it seems the only time that outreach is being done is when there is a sweep. That really needs to change.”
Martens said that’s not entirely accurate.
“You and I talked about how we’ve been doing outreach in the CID for many months, and the work is time-intensive and resource-intensive. Outreach providers, like all of our service providers, require resources and skilled staff to do the work of people helping people. We use the word “resolution” (rather than sweep) because the purpose is to meet people where they are and provide housing and shelter appropriate to their needs.”
The encampment has been there for a year.
In a news release, KCRHA stated it moved 5,600 people indoors in 2022. It further stated that the closure of the CID encampment would bring to six the total number of encampments “resolved.”
“Our work in King County has a 90% success rate of people accepting housing and shelter across the five5 resolved sites (520, Olive Way, Dearborn, Northgate, and South Park).”
Woo said, at least those from the CID encampment—those who actually made it to housing—would be housed for only a short amount of time. Unhoused people told her they were given assurances for 60 to 90 days. Some said it was for only one day.
“I heard from an unhoused person the motel voucher was good for only 90 days, but I wasn’t able to confirm it with KCRHA. When they ran out of motel space, they were placing people into congregate shelters,” said Woo.
“And what happens after that?”
Martens said the figure was not accurate.
Another man, who said he had been living in the encampment and gave his name as James from Maple Valley, said that he had missed the opportunity for housing earlier because he was in the hospital.
But, he said, he expected to be transported today via an Uber driver to the Kings Inn, a 2-star hotel.
“The entire hotel is leased in order to provide spaces for people coming in from encampment sites,” said Martens.
He said he was “still using,” but that KCRHA adopted the approach of housing people first to allow them to get treatment.
“I mean, if someone’s cold, you’re going to first give them a blanket, right?”
A regional approach
Martens said that this is all the more reason for a regional, rather than a local, approach to homelessness, which is one of the cornerstones of KCRHA.
But critics contend that in recent years, the county has simply cut programs while leaving the city to pick up the slack—causing the city to lose control of its ability to handle homelessness.
In February, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell was reported to have publicly questioned the $12 billion price tag that the head of the KCRHA affixed to its 5-year plan.
Martens clarified that that number does not represent the budget of the KCRHA—rather what it would take to end homelessness. The budget for KCRHA for 2023 was $253 million.
Need for more coordination
After Blaze disappeared, Woo grew concerned. On one hand, she said, it’s possible the veteran had just come over hearing about the sweep and hoping for housing.
On the other hand, Woo said, Blaze might now be living on the other side of the parking lot.
“We’ve seen a lot of people waiting around and not getting housing,” she said.
Meanwhile, workers carried new fencing to put up along the cleared portions.
One proposal for utilizing the new space under the freeway—assuming an encampment does not come back—is to create a dog park, said members of the CID Public Safety Council.
Still, that would take coordination with the city, WSDOT, and KCRHA, which has been less than stellar so far.
“We contacted the mayor’s office about the people we knew who said they were missed by outreach workers, but we don’t know if the outreach workers got to them in the end,” said Woo.
Wrote Martens, in an email, “Yes, it would take coordination, and improving that coordination is one of the reasons that KCRHA was formed.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.