Three business alliances are hiring their own caseworkers to help out their businesses, but they're imploring city hall to do something about safety.
When timber-giant Weyerhaeuser moved its headquarters from Federal Way to Pioneer Square in Seattle in 2016, the company’s chief administration officer, Denise Merle, said she was worried about the commute.
Now, she worries about the safety of the streets between transit stops and work. At a forum for business leaders on Monday night, Merle said Weyerhaeuser employees have walked over needles, trash and human waste and endured frightening encounters with “aggressive individuals,” after which Merle said one employee even had to seek medical attention.
“Our city’s reputation is at risk,” Merle said. “Our reputation as employers is at risk.”
Merle was one of many business leaders at the Monday forum who appealed to the city to do more about public safety and people living outdoors, whose numbers have shot up to be among the highest in the nation.
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The forum was held in Sodo, right under the peering eyes of the Starbucks mermaid at its headquarters. Seattle City Council members Mike O’Brien, Lisa Herbold and Bruce Harrell sat at the front next to three police-precinct captains, Seattle’s fire chief, and Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, but the meeting wasn’t public, and the audience was overwhelmingly Seattle business leaders.
Business alliances in Seattle have lobbied City Hall to get more beat cops and faster camp cleanups for some time. But now, frustrated with a lack of action, many in Seattle’s urban core are trying to deal with the problem on their own.
Sodo Business Improvement Area (BIA)— which has Starbucks’ director of intelligence on their board of directors — just approved more than $85,000 to hire a caseworker for a year through REACH, whose caseworkers are also on the city’s team that cleans up homeless camps. Ballard has had such a caseworker since January. The U District Partnership is seeking City Council support for funding for one of their own.
But the alliances stress that with their small budgets, they can’t do this without the city.
“We’re choosing to do it because we’re at the point of doing anything,” said Erin Goodman, head of Sodo BIA, which put together the Monday night meeting with business alliances in Ballard, the Chinatown International District, University District, and Pioneer Square. Ballard, U District and Sodo, in particular, have seen their homeless counts spike between this year and last year.
The business community’s lobbying is starting to work. This past month, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed budget included $200,000 for more of those caseworkers in Chinatown International District, Capitol Hill and First Hill.
But most business leaders don’t think it’s been enough, and this forum was part of an effort, once again, to bend the ear of city leadership. Organizers pushed speakers to discuss homelessness as an issue different from crime, but most business leaders spoke of camping and crime in the same breath. Violent crime in the city has increased 11 percent over the past decade, and, although property crime has gone down, Seattle’s rate remains one of the highest in the nation.
And a crowd of small-business owners, from a small-batch ice cream shop in the U District to a planter-box maintenance company in Pioneer Square, lined up to share their grievances — mostly regarding needles, tents and people who are arrested and return again and again to cause the same problems.
The hope is that the caseworkers the alliances are hiring can offer business owners someone to call when a person won’t leave their parking lot or doorstep. One of the major complaints Monday night — which has been frequent from North Seattle residents as well — was slow 911 response.
In Sodo, Goodman splits her time between running the BIA and fielding calls about homelessness. She says many of them are small neighborhood things that the Navigation Team wouldn’t normally deal with, such as people throwing needles into parking lots and not cleaning up waste for weeks.
Business owners in the neighborhood have come to rely on the BIA because they can’t always rely on the city, Goodman said. In late September, Leslie Shelton, owner of a dog-food company in Sodo, was attacked by three pit bulls she said came out of an RV near the Uwajimaya headquarters nearby. Shelton called 911 and her husband, Cliff, called Goodman just a few minutes after.
“She’s the first to know,” Cliff Shelton said. “She [Goodman] was down here within 15 minutes. I call her a guardian angel.”
But Goodman doesn’t know how to persuade people to take shelter, and she doesn’t even think one caseworker would fix the problem.
“I really believe the city should be contributing,” Goodman said. “One outreach worker in Sodo is not going to solve our problems, because our population down here is so big.”
O’Brien plans on proposing a change to the mayor’s budget, to open up the $200,000 to any business improvement area that wants to apply for it.
But as he walked out of the meeting Monday night, O’Brien pointed out that the city has been getting many more people off the streets in the first half of the year.
“We’re doing things and getting a lot of results, but we find ourselves overwhelmed by the problem,” O’Brien said. And despite what he says is data showing the problem is improving, “people continue to feel like it’s getting worse.”