Seattle Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim teared up at a recent neighborhood meeting when she mentioned her own experience with housing instability.
Hyeok Kim was standing in for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray at a neighborhood meeting, like she had several times before. Some people asking Kim questions were upset with Murray, like before, and the meeting was about homelessness, like before.
Then the 40-year-old deputy mayor brought up her own family’s experience with homelessness, something she’d never done before. That’s when the tears came.
“I was crying like a baby,” Kim said in an interview a few days after the Jan. 27 meeting at the Highland Park Improvement Club, where she’d discussed a safe lot for homeless people living in vehicles that the city will open in Delridge later this month.
The moment was unplanned, unscripted and somewhat embarrassing, said Kim, a polished bureaucrat whose normal mode of operation is composed and reserved.
But it wasn’t unimportant. Kim’s reaction underscored how emotional conversations about homelessness can be and helped explain how the mayor and his team are approaching the problem. Murray proclaimed a state of emergency in November.
“I don’t expect and certainly the mayor doesn’t expect everyone to agree 100 percent with his policies,” Kim said. “We may sometimes issue policies or make proposals that seem very technical. But there are people here implementing and developing those policies and ideas. We’re not without life experiences of our own.”
Murray named Kim his deputy mayor for external affairs in December 2013, three weeks before he took office. Since 2008, she had been executive director of the Interim Community Development Association, a Chinatown International District nonprofit.
Previously, Kim had spent more than seven years working with state House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and the House Democratic Caucus. But the story behind her emotion at the Highland Park Improvement Club last month began long before Kim entered politics. The story began when she was a girl growing up in South Korea.
“When I was about 4 years old, our father passed away,” she recalled. “My family (had been) preparing to immigrate to the United States and it was rather sudden. He died of pancreatic cancer … My mother was left with myself and my two older sisters.”
Kim went on, “My mother had to reapply for a visa to come to the U.S. That took us about two years. In the intervening time, my mother never had a job. It was a situation where any savings were quickly dwindling. We had family members who were able to give us a little money here and there, but our housing situation was unstable.”
The future deputy mayor never had to sleep on the street; many people in South Korea at the time were very poor and other families suffered more, Kim noted before continuing.
“When the savings had run out and money from relatives had been exhausted, our situation was even more unstable,” she said. “We were living at one point in the backroom of an abandoned storefront — my mother and sisters and me in one room.”
The family almost became homeless again after moving to Federal Way, Kim said. She was in elementary school when her mother, who had been working nights cleaning offices in a Seattle high-rise, died of lung cancer. The family had a public-housing apartment, but without a parent, the sisters were poised to enter the foster-care system.
“None of our aunts and uncles were financially able to take us in,” she said. “My oldest sister was just barely 18 (allowing her to be appointed legal guardian for her younger sisters), so we were able to stay living in the housing project.”
More than any other official, Kim has been the public face of Murray’s homelessness agenda. She led meetings in Ballard, Interbay and Sodo last summer after the mayor announced he would open encampments in those neighborhoods, stirring resentment among some residents and business owners who said they had been blindsided.
The atmosphere at the Ballard meeting on Aug. 12 was particularly contentious, verging on nasty, as several hundred people squeezed into the Leif Erikson Lodge.
Some members of the crowd shouted at Kim and other officials, demanding to know why Murray was absent. “We know they need help — just not here!” one person yelled.
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“The meeting in Ballard wasn’t hurtful for me personally, but I was incredibly disappointed to see how participants who were homeless or formerly homeless and who shared their stories were treated,” Kim said. “There was some heckling behavior.”
The anger stemmed partly from the city not providing people with enough information, Kim admitted, saying, “We’re not going to get it right every time.” But the anger also stemmed from people lacking experience with homelessness, she said.
“Some people have never had to deal with homelessness or interact with someone going through homelessness, so there can be an understandable fear,” Kim said.
The atmosphere at the recent Highland Park meeting was friendlier, she said. Whether that means people are warming to the mayor’s agenda is unclear.
Either way, questions about services for homeless people using the safe parking lot led to the personal moment for Kim. West Seattle Blog first reported on the exchange.
“There is no one reason or cookie-cutter reason why anyone becomes homeless,” she said, adding, “My family also experienced homelessness when I was a child.”
Eyes watering, Kim passed the microphone to a Human Services Department staff member who also choked up as she mentioned a relative experiencing homelessness.
Taking the microphone back, Kim thanked the Highland Park crowd for being “much nicer than Ballard,” and said, “I know people are still frustrated. People are still angry. I do want to hear that.” She asked the meeting attendees to “just disregard my crying.”
Reflecting on the exchange afterward, Kim explained where her tears came from.
“The sympathy in the room made me let my guard down,” she said. “Seeing that people cared made me want to share that this isn’t abstract for me and this administration.”