Residents and business owners in Seattle’s Chinatown neighborhood protest nearly daily in hopes of blocking what they call a mega-plex homeless shelter on the edge their district. They march to the King County Council board meeting and to the site of the shelter carrying signs that read ‘stop Asian hate’ and ‘systemic racism again’. They’re fighting a big expansion of a 270-bed homeless shelter that has attracted a large unsanctioned tent encampment. It’s one of 15 homeless shelters within one mile of Chinatown. Residents there say enough is enough.
“We have been feeling the negative impacts of these shelters,” said Tanya Woo, a Chinatown business owner, “all these problems in terms of public safety have just exploded with the encampments, open air drug markets.”
Despite the opposition, King County is moving forward with plans to renew the lease of the existing shelter and continue operating it for 5 more years. Also, the county plans on adding 150 shelter beds by establishing a tiny house village, an RV lot, a sobering center and a shelter in a currently vacant building that will house and treat homeless people suffering from drug addiction and mental illness. The county has budgeted $66.5 million for the project, much of the money coming from federal Covid relief funds.
Leo Flor, Director of King County’s Human Services Department, says 750 people live on the streets in and around Chinatown. Bringing some of them inside, including many of the difficult-to-shelter homeless people, is a priority that can’t wait any longer.”
Downtown Seattle for this particular shelter has more people experiencing unsheltered homelessness than any other part of the county,” Flor said, “And what we see is that people don’t tend to go far from where they became homeless. They want to stay in their community.”
Other cities are grappling with the same problem. With a big increase in people living in tents the last two years, elected officials are turning to dramatically adding shelter space, by purchasing hotels and leasing large commercial buildings. When adding shelter beds the sticky questions are always ‘how big?’ and ‘where?’ Oftentimes cities shrink planned shelters in the face of opposition. San Francisco dramatically downsized a shelter along Embarcadero and New York City pulled two of three new shelters planned in its Chinatown neighborhood after large protests.
But Seattle is moving forward vowing to work with Chinatown residents on some of the particular plans drawing the most concern. But it’s already too late for some business owners who feel they’ve already carried too much of the homelessness burden. This week the Viet Wah Market closed its doors after 34 years in Seattle’s Chinatown International District. Leeching Tran was just two-years old when her father established the Vietnamese store. Now, as vice-president she’s sad to be closing down.
“Crime has gone up in the neighborhood,” Tran said, “People don’t feel safe coming to the area anymore, our customers don’t feel safe coming, our staff don’t feel safe coming to work.”