There’s some anxiety in Chinatown International District about a proposal to further restrict the city’s ability to clear unauthorized homeless encampments, a museum director says. The neighborhood had problems with one over the summer.
When the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and other advocacy organizations last week proposed new protections for homeless people camping on public property, a wave of anxiety washed through the Chinatown International District, says Beth Takekawa, executive director of the neighborhood’s Wing Luke Museum.
The Wing Luke, which explores the culture, art and history of Asian- and Pacific Islander Americans, came close to shutting down in July due to crime and trash surrounding an unauthorized encampment less than a block away, she says.
Repeated requests for relief eventually led the city to clear the encampment where South King Street crosses under Interstate 5. But Takekawa says she and others worry the proposed changes could make it more difficult for officials to take care of vulnerable areas.
“The neighborhood is nervous it (the problem) will come back,” she said. “It almost killed us.”
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The advocacy organizations are asking the City Council to pass an ordinance further restricting how Seattle can evict people on roadsides, in greenbelts and under bridges.
Existing guidelines require the city to give 72 hours’ notice before clearing a site and to use outreach workers to connect people with help. But a recent Seattle Times story documented problems, such as poor coordination between city and state officials.
The proposed ordinance would allow officials to continue evicting campers from sites deemed dangerous or unsuitable based on public-health risks or a particular location. But they would need to try to alleviate the risks or make available better sites nearby.
For encampments not immediately dangerous and not impeding public use, the city would be allowed to evict people only after offering them housing.
In appealing directly to the council, the advocacy organizations are seeking to bypass Mayor Ed Murray. The ACLU and Columbia Legal Services have declined his invitation to a task force on improving the city’s approach to unauthorized encampments.
They say unnecessary evictions make it harder for struggling people to get back on their feet. There were more than 500 city cleanups last year.
On Monday, Murray officials sent council members a memo objecting to the proposed ordinance, warning its “practical impact would be dramatic.”
The memo argues the ordinance would further open city parks and sidewalks to unauthorized camping, claims it would cost “tens of millions of dollars annually” to implement and says, “Every dollar spent on supporting outdoor living is a dollar not spent on moving someone into housing.”
Sympathy to a point
Takekawa says the Wing Luke is sympathetic when it comes to people without homes. Chinatown ID has always known poverty — until recently, a young man regularly slept in the museum’s alcove and helped keep the area clean.
“Because we’re a low-income community with immigrant families, people here generally understand that we can be a paycheck away,” the museum director said.
But this summer, as the King Street encampment grew from a manageable handful of tents to many, attracting drug dealers and generating piles of trash, the museum’s attendance suffered, and its walking tours became less viable.
“It built up into an open-air drug market so fast,” Takekawa said. “In the beginning it was people we knew. They were part of the community.”
The man in the alcove? He disappeared. “It wasn’t safe for him anymore,” Takekawa said.
She admits she doesn’t know exactly how the ordinance would change things on the ground, nor how to solve the overall homelessness crisis. Lately, the city has been playing whack-a-mole.
The situation on King Street worsened just as the city began trying to coax people out of The Jungle, a constellation of camping sites south of the Chinatown ID. Some went into shelters or housing. Others may have simply moved to King Street.
Now King Street is clear, but encampments in Sodo and above Rainier Avenue South between South Dearborn Street and Interstate 90 have swelled.
Yurij Rudensky, a Columbia Legal Services attorney, says the advocacy organizations are sensitive to the concerns of people in the Chinatown ID.
“The goal is to strike a balance between community needs and making sure that (homeless) people aren’t chased around the city,” he said. “There’s no intention of tying the city’s hands.”
Near South Royal Brougham Way and Airport Way South, the city is maintaining some state property as a transition site between The Jungle and better options for people.
There are portable toilets there, and although Sodo business owner Mike Carr would rather not have campers down the block, he credits the mayor for trying something.
Carr’s beef is with the new proposal and with the council. They don’t seem to understand the impacts of the crisis on small businesses, he says.
“Murray’s office is doing a tremendous job,” said Carr, who owns Performance Radiator. “I think the City Council is the problem.”
“Massive drug dealing” happens in unauthorized encampments, Carr says, “to where I have needle caps all over my property” and people using his parking lot as a bathroom.
Carr says he wants more rules for people camping outside — not more protections.
“I would start moving them,” he said. “Where would they go? I really don’t care. I’m to that point.”
That’s the philosophy David Sandoval, who lives in a tent on the Sodo site, says he grew used to in his native Texas, where officials are less lenient.
He caught a ride from Houston not long ago and says he’s looking for work as a heavy-machine operator.
Sandoval views encampments as an alternative to crowded, chaotic shelters and says evictions should be a last resort.
“If we’re not bothering nobody and we’re not in the way …” he said, trailing off.