Twelve times, the man called Seattle City Hall. And 12 times, no one called him back.
He lives near Genesee Park and Playfield in South Seattle, and a few weeks ago noticed a group of official-looking people walking around the parking lot.
The next day, a work crew arrived and spent a few hours resurfacing the parking lot, spreading gravel. They put in a water tank and upgraded the bathrooms.
That’s when the man started calling the city’s Department of Neighborhoods to find out what was going on. No response.
He did hear, however, from a neighbor who told him that a permit had been filed by the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) on behalf of the city, proposing to turn the parking lot into a “safe lot,” where 30 homeless people living in their cars could pull in, park and spend the night.
Not long after, a crowd of curious, confused and angry people packed into the Southeast Seattle Senior Center to find out what the heck was going on. The meeting was officially for the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council, but President Pat Murakami turned it over to the topic of the proposed safe lot, and invited Lily Rehrmann, a strategic adviser for the Human Services Department, and Tom Van Bronkhorst, from the Department of Neighborhoods, to address the crowd.
Things went around and around, as community meetings do. Where were Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmember Bruce Harrell, people demanded. Others expressed concern about drug use and sex offenders, and fretted about safety of the high-school soccer and football teams that fill the field on a daily — and nightly — basis.
A woman named Sahila ChangeBringer, who had been homeless, chided the crowd from the back of the room: “I am the person you are saying ‘no’ to!” she said. “And I cannot believe that you would have no compassion. Every person has a story. Where are we supposed to go?”
But it was the man who had called the city 12 times who spoke to the broader issue: The city moving on with a plan without notifying the people who would live around it.
“Why not share it with the community?” he asked. Nearly everyone in the room sat up in their chairs to hear the answer.
“There hadn’t been a decision,” Rehrmann replied.
“There had been a decision,” the man blew back. “And you got caught!”
Indeed, just hours before the meeting, the permit application to place the safe lot at Genesee had been withdrawn.
It was a bad start to what, so far, has been a hopeful response to the homeless crisis that has become part of everyday life here. Battered tents are everywhere. People wrapped in blankets share the sidewalks with tourists and office workers. Onramps are strewn with garbage and Limebikes. I just saw a half-naked man urinating outside his tent along the the side of Interstate 5.
Taxpayers have given the city of Seattle tens of millions of dollars to end homelessness. This year, the city is expected to spend $90 million.
So as that process continues — be it opening shelters, building low-income housing or making space in city parks — the city needs to keep in mind the people who are funding those solutions. Or at least return their phone calls.
Right now, it just looks bad. A lack of communication and transparency makes everyone suspicious — even people with open hearts and minds, as many of the Genesee neighbors seemed to be.
The problem isn’t confined to the city’s response to homelessness. The nomination process for a new Human Services Department director hit a standstill this week, in part because of complaints that the search lacked a consideration of social justice, racial equity and — wait for it — transparency.
Murakami, who is running for City Council, told me city officials asked her opinion on a few sites for the safe lot. All preliminary, they said. Murakami wanted the community’s input, and asked the city for more information to send out in an email. She never heard back from the city. But she did hear from KOMO News about the permit.
“This was not the process the city told me they were going to follow,” Murakami said of the improvements and the permit. “To say that it was preliminary and that they were going to talk with us is baloney.”
You want her opinion? Murakami would take the $250,000 budgeted for the pilot program and give people job counseling. Housing vouchers. Assess their needs. Focus on solutions, rather than keeping people oppressed, which is what she said a parking lot would do.
But first, she said, keep everyone informed.
There are lots of good people in Seattle who prepare and serve meals every week under the Interstate 90 overpass and elsewhere. They donate clothes. And they pay taxes.
“I would go to them first,” Murakami said. “Say, ‘This is the problem, help me solve it.’ “
And don’t be afraid to return their calls.