Advocates for Seattle’s Chinatown International District and officials from King County agree on two points: the region’s homelessness is at a crisis, and Chinatown International District does not feel safe to its residents.
Tents are clustered underneath and around the Interstate 5 bridge on South King Street, and wooden boards that went up during 2020 have stayed up, creating the look of a neighborhood under siege, even as crowds wait on the sidewalk for tables at restaurants and residents play pingpong in the park.
King County is expanding an existing shelter in north Sodo, bordering the Chinatown International District, in part to help alleviate issues there by bringing those living on the neighborhood’s streets inside.
That will create one of the region’s largest hubs for social services with a total of 419 beds, adding room for RVs, tiny homes and mental health and addiction treatment to a neighborhood that already has a concentration of shelter and low-income housing. The $66.5 million it will cost to build and operate the hub for five years is paid for primarily by the American Rescue Plan.
The county wants to start opening the expanded services this fall, to work in concert with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority’s Partnership for Zero, a project to address people living outside in downtown Seattle and the Chinatown International District that’s just getting off the ground.
But some in the Chinatown International District community are organizing to stop it.
Efforts to block new homeless shelters are so common as to be routine both locally and across the country. But here, where a high number of homeless people and services are clustered in a low-income neighborhood of people of color, and where residents cite a history of being bulldozed in community discussions, the concerns are loaded with previous traumas.
On Sept. 8, more than 100 people rallied in the Chinatown International District’s Hing Hay Park to oppose the project. When a similar protest marched to City Hall on Sept. 20, they were joined by president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild Mike Solan and members of the King County Republican Party who produced some of the picket signs. They read, “We want our say,” “Why us again?” and “Systemic racism must end.”
History filled with hurt
At the core of what Chinatown International District residents fear about the shelter expansion is how their neighborhood has already changed.
“We feel intimidated and harassed and we don’t have our mental health,” said Qiu Fen Peng, 91, in Cantonese through a translator at the Hing Hay Park community meeting, describing how she and many elders feel while walking around the neighborhood.
In the past several years, the neighborhood has experienced an increase in theft, break-ins and open-air drug markets, according to business owners who associate those issues with the rise of homeless people nearby. Some restaurants in Little Saigon closed after their owners said customers no longer felt safe to walk in the area.
Police data shows that some violent crimes have increased in 2021 and 2022, especially homicides and assaults, and property crime rates have largely stayed the same during the pandemic. Most research does not prove a connection between larger homeless encampments and increased property crime.
Elected officials like King County Councilmember Joe McDermott acknowledge that the sense of physical security in the neighborhood is “at an all-time low.”
Some residents say the Navigation Center, a 75-bed homeless shelter that opened in Little Saigon in 2017, exacerbated drug activity and related crime in a neighborhood that has long been a hot spot of homelessness dating back decades to “The Jungle,” a large series of past encampments south of the neighborhood.
For many in the community, the fight over the services hub is a product of institutional racism and feeling cut out of decisions.
Longtime neighborhood advocates say they have been “dumped on” since the placement of the Kingdome and Interstate 5 bisected the community, a pattern that many residents attribute to mostly white officials ignoring the voices of a community of mostly Asian Americans, many of whom are immigrants.
“They immediately roll over and play dead and plead ignorance and promise never to do it again,” said Chong Wa Benevolent Association co-chair Betty Lau. “But the damage is done.”
Those tensions again surfaced in 2017, when the Navigation Center was opened in Little Saigon despite community members saying they weren’t consulted then either.
Now, residents are pushing back on two fronts — a proposed light rail station on Fifth Avenue that could displace dozens of businesses — and this expanded shelter.
“We are committed to moving with haste”
It’s quiet inside the shelter in north Sodo that is causing all the stir.
A secured gate lines the perimeter of the 269-bed, 24/7 facility that occupies several large warehouses, some of which used to be a Tesla dealership.
The Salvation Army, which operates it, says a third of people staying there work jobs during the day, and all are required to abstain from alcohol and drugs and abide by a 9 p.m. curfew.
Data from the Seattle Police Department shows a 6% increase in 911 calls in the area of Chinatown International District closest to the shelter after it opened in November of 2020.
That’s why the neighborhood’s opposition to the expansion came as a surprise to King County Executive Dow Constantine.
The county says it reached out to 13 community organizations — half of which are based in the Chinatown International District — before the council voted in May to approve the lease for the services hub.
Residents have since been invited to sit on a formal work group around the project and can still influence the facility’s entry and exit points, security and lighting, and how many RVs can be there, the county said.
Seattle officials Mayor Bruce Harrell and Councilmember Tammy Morales, as well as county Councilmember McDermott, said they supported the county’s efforts to both continue engaging the community and to bring more people inside.
Neighborhood advocates say the outreach was “too little, too late” and should have included a notice to each individual with language translation.
Organizers have asked for a six-month moratorium on the project for the county to do “proper outreach and engagement” with the community. The county says it can’t ask people living outside to wait that long.
Officials contend the question shouldn’t be whether the planned services hub is the perfect shelter in the perfect location, but whether it’s better than the alternative.
“We know what not doing anything looks like,” said Leo Flor, the county’s director of Community and Human Services. “We don’t have an option of not bringing more people inside.”
An unmet need spills onto the streets
Constantine said nearly all of the county’s shelter and housing projects have been met with some amount of community opposition, so it tries to strike a balance between the customarily lengthy community engagement process and the urgency of addressing the homelessness crisis.
“Every day that goes by people are languishing on the streets, and every day they languish on the streets, the situation gets worse,” Constantine said. “We are committed to moving with haste, because people’s lives are at stake here.”
Service providers say that much of what people see as the most severe impacts of homelessness on a community are caused by people with untreated psychiatric needs or addiction issues.
That is likely true of the area around the Navigation Center said Dale Hayes, 51, who has been living there for the last several months. Hayes said the area is a hot spot for selling drugs and many of the people staying there are caught up in it.
Ever since the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s main congregate shelter downtown closed down during the pandemic, Executive Director Daniel Malone said people with high behavioral needs have been missing a place to go. Many of those people have likely ended up outside, he said, which he thinks contributes to the sense that homelessness has gotten worse downtown and in nearby neighborhoods like Chinatown International District.
Phillip Daniels, 57, who has been sleeping outside in Little Saigon, said most people living outside in the neighborhood do so because “it’s just kind of where they’ve been shoved to.”
Malone and Constantine believe the Sodo Services Hub will help bring those people inside and alleviate their impact on the communities around them.
“We, of course, want the places that are hosting these to benefit from them,” Constantine said.
How big is too big?
Advocates of the Chinatown International District argue that the small neighborhood of 3,000 to 4,000 people, where the average median income is about half what it is in the rest of the city, can only accommodate so many services and people.
The county’s project will add an RV lot, an area for “pallet shelters” similar to tiny homes, a behavioral health center and a sobering center — 150 beds, bringing the total to 419.
Across the street from the services hub is the William Booth Center, a 152-bed homeless shelter that The Salvation Army has been operating since 1987. There is also the 75-bed Navigation Center and more than 100 units of permanent housing for formerly homeless people in the neighborhood.
The Regional Homelessness Authority was unable to say what the current distribution of shelter beds and services throughout the city looks like, a number that is often changing as facilities close or move. But CEO Marc Dones said homeless shelters have historically been “aggressively sited” in Pioneer Square and the Chinatown International District, while pointing out other neighborhoods like Magnolia have none.
“I don’t think it’s fair that we shoulder the city and the county’s homeless crisis,” said Tanya Woo, one of the primary organizers fighting the shelter expansion.
Woo also volunteers with Chinatown International District Community Watch, patrolling the neighborhood at night while often handing out food and water to homeless people.
Some homelessness experts say there are legitimate concerns with how large and clustered the services hub is.
“It risks becoming a dumping ground for homeless people,” said Stephen Metraux, a homelessness researcher at the University of Delaware, who says an overconcentration of homelessness in one area can come to define a place.
Metraux said that shelters have historically been concentrated either in low-income areas predominantly where people of color live, or in industrial areas; both are types of neighborhoods with little political capital to fight against projects.
For the sheltered and unsheltered people living in those areas, “destitution becomes more of the norm, and it becomes harder to escape,” Metraux said.
For similar reasons, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority is pushing to spread the region’s shelter and housing services more throughout the county.
“If we site things in more places, there’s less likelihood that we’ll see these significant concentrations of people because we won’t have forced them to all go to one place,” Dones said.
Dones declined to comment on the Sodo Services Hub, but an authority spokesperson implied the CEO’s comments largely don’t apply, saying the hub is in Sodo, an industrial area.
County Executive Constantine said the services hub is, in part, intentionally placed near the Chinatown International District, Pioneer Square, downtown and north Sodo “where homelessness is the most pronounced of any place in our region.”
He said he has learned most people living outside do not want to move away from the people they have relationships with and the places they’re familiar with. The tiny homes will first be offered to the people living in the encampment located where the hub will be built.
County officials have also been building or acquiring shelter and housing in many places, deliberately spread throughout the county. Through its Health Through Housing initiative, the county has purchased 10 hotels that will be turned into permanent supportive housing in places like Renton, Federal Way, Auburn, North Seattle, Queen Anne and Pioneer Square.
But in Chinatown, residents and business owners remain unconvinced that these efforts will help their community.
“They’ve already destroyed their credibility,” said advocate Lau, who grew up there.