Tuesday, January 25, 2022
Jan. 25, 2022

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They’ve helped Seattle’s Chinatown International District survive. Now they say government must do more

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SEATTLE — Hing Hay Park was dark, wet, cold and almost empty on a recent night. Then Judy Vue arrived, pulling a wagon with instant noodles and hot water.

“Want some ramen?” she called to a woman camped out with blankets under the park’s pavilion.

Since mid-2020, Vue and other volunteers with the Chinatown International District Community Watch have met regularly to patrol a part of Seattle that’s been pummeled by compounding crises and, according to many advocates, that’s received inadequate government support.

First, the pandemic shut down the dining scenes in the CID’s three neighborhoods: Chinatown, Little Saigon and Japantown. Later, vandals used street protests as cover to do damage. Hate-laced attacks against Asian Americans made headlines. The CID’s homeless population grew as the city lost shelter beds to social-distancing requirements.

Today, some Chinatown storefronts are still boarded up. Drugs and stolen goods are washing in and out of Little Saigon, business owners say. Gunshots have spiked, as other crime data tells a muddy story. People living outside are particularly vulnerable.

“We’re seeing our mental health crisis on display. We’re seeing our addiction crisis. We’re seeing our homelessness crisis,” plus crime, said King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, whose district includes Little Saigon. “Everyone in the area is bearing the brunt, whether they’re people on the street, business owners or residents.”

City Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Kshama Sawant, who represent parts of the CID, didn’t grant interviews.

The Watch volunteers are self-described “nerdy people” with some medical and de-escalation training. They log broken windows, hand out clothes, look out for taggers and call police only as a last resort, because officers can sometimes make things worse, they say.

Their route takes them under Interstate 5, where an encampment sprawled this fall; by 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street, where multiple shootings have occurred; and down sidewalks where litter has sometimes piled up.

“You see businesses leaving their cash registers open, by the door, so people can see they have nothing to steal,” said Watch volunteer Tanya Woo, whose family owns Chinatown’s historic Louisa Hotel building.

The Watch’s initial mission was to deter crime. Yet as the volunteers patrolled, “we realized there were a lot of unhoused people who needed help,” said Vue, who grew up spending time in the CID.

There are reasons for positivity, too, including some promising city initiatives, a crop of new businesses and a constellation of grassroots efforts like the Watch. But many people involved say officials must address underlying needs, like access to affordable housing, mental health care and safety services that residents trust.

Some are pinning hopes on incoming Mayor Bruce Harrell and City Attorney Ann Davison, who start next month, while others are concentrating on providing mutual aid.

“This is not how it should be,” said Matthew Toles, who founded the Watch. “We’re picking up the slack, but we’re not fixing the problems.”

History lesson

Done distributing ramen at Hing Hay Park, six Watch volunteers walked east, toward the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. The CID has a history of community patrolling, partly to make up for government neglect, said Rahul Gupta, The Wing’s education director.

In prior decades, the CID was hemmed in by redlining and divided by I-5, though neighborhood organizers worked to protect the area’s heritage. Public safety has been a recurring concern.

In the late 1960s, neighborhood guardian Donnie Chin created a group of grassroots first responders. Fatally shot in 2015, Chin “inspired a generation of people who are now stepping up,” Gupta said.

Fewer crimes were reported in the CID this year through November than in 2019, including fewer robberies and thefts, per a police dashboard. Assaults are up, though, as are burglaries. Shootings, too: The annual average from 2014 to 2019 was four; there were 13 reported this year through November.

The Watch volunteers saw officers once during their recent walk, parked by the edge of Little Saigon.

“They show up after the fact,” said Gupta, who suspects the district is targeted for vandalism by people from elsewhere. “Where’s the prevention?”

Minor crimes also matter, said Izzy Amin, who not long ago saw a man stroll down his block, smashing car windows with a hammer. A different man has broken into Amin’s building three times, he said. The Chinatown resident is nervous, because the police “take 15 minutes to come.”

There are other patrols, besides the Watch. The nonprofit We Got This Seattle, which launched after COVID-19 hit, has worked with restaurateur (and Top Chef television star) Shota Nakajima on fundraising to pay security guards for late-night CID walks, founder Ellen Kuwana said.

“We specified no guns. They’re not police. But they wear yellow reflective vests that say security,” she said.

The Wing cleans its block and participates in the neighborhood’s business association, said Gupta, whose culinary tours, with themes like “Twilight Noodle Slurp,” show off local restaurants.

But the museum can’t provide social services. “The city has failed. The police have failed,” Gupta said. “The neighborhood is doing its best.”

Homeless encampment

Past The Wing, the Watch volunteers ventured into a cavernous space where King Street runs below I-5, and began handing water bottles to people in tents.

The CID’s homeless population began increasing years before the pandemic, when the city cleared out The Jungle, a series of encampments to the south, said Noah Fay, housing director at the Downtown Emergency Service Center.

Then COVID surged and shelters shrunk, including the Navigation Center in Little Saigon. It currently has 75 beds, down from 85 before COVID, said Fay, whose organization operates the shelter.

The King Street encampment had dozens of tents in October but was almost gone during the Watch’s recent walk, due to outreach by JustCARE, a Public Defender Association program.

The program has received funding from the city and county since 2020, including $15 million for work in Pioneer Square and the CID, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office noted. JustCARE moved 49 people indoors from King Street recently, mostly into private accommodations like hotel rooms.

That shows the approach can succeed, said Nichole Alexander, a JustCARE manager. But tents will likely continue to be pitched on King Street, considering JustCare emptied the same space a year ago. Even among people who get rooms, some return to the streets.

“When you’re out there for so long, your mind’s not right,” with drugs everywhere and frequent robberies, said Than Dinh Le, who camped at King Street until JustCARE (referred by the Watch) got him a place.

“I have some hope now,” Le said.

A long-term commitment is needed, Alexander argues, saying JustCARE had to stop working in the CID for much of this year because county leaders wanted the program to concentrate on City Hall Park.

“It’s been frustrating to know what is needed … but only rarely to get the green light,” she said.

Little Saigon

The area of 12th and Jackson is arguably the CID’s most troubled intersection. Day and night, stolen goods, drugs and other items are sold at a bus stop and outside the Ding How Center shopping complex, business owners say.

There have been at least four shootings in the vicinity since late August, with six people hit, according to police reports. The Watch sent only two volunteers to check out the intersection, leaving their wagon blocks away.

Though 12th and Jackson has been a hot spot for years, the action has ramped up since the pandemic began, said Yong Hong Wang and Michael Creel, who observe from the second floor of the Ding How Center, where their Seven Stars Pepper Szechwan Restaurant is struggling.

Two other shopping complexes at 12th and Jackson have installed fences to discourage people from hanging out in their parking lots. The Ding How Center is now working with a fence vendor, said employee Howard Ho.

Perspectives vary. ChuMinh Tofu, a restaurant located across the street, is the hub for a volunteer group called the Egg Rolls that serves vegan meals to anyone and everyone each Sunday. Owner Thanh-Nga “Tanya” Nguy?n donates the food.

“We should not put people in jail,” she said, calling for housing, drug treatment and jobs. “The people that create the most problems simply need more attention, care and help.”

Johnny Mao, an Egg Rolls volunteer, worries a crackdown or clear-out — absent safe consumption spaces for drug users — may only “push people out to die somewhere else.”

Most people at the intersection are trying to get by, added Yarrow Blackbear, who lives nearby and socializes there. More outreach is needed, especially for people being put “through the wringer” by growing fentanyl use, she said.

Meanwhile, Nick Bui is exasperated. The windows at his restaurant, Dong Thap Noodles, have been broken three times in the past year. His insurance company has declined to renew his policy and his sales are down, he said.

“Tourists still come here. They don’t know better. … Locals are staying away,” said Bui, considering closure.

Zahilay said conditions in Little Saigon have become “untenable.” He wants to convene biweekly meetings so agencies can report on steps.

“I don’t see a lot of communication right now,” Zahilay said.

Workers from the Seattle Department of Transportation, which oversees street vending licenses, recently visited 12th and Jackson, said West Precinct police Capt. Matt Allen. “Someone knocked their clipboard out of their hands,” so police are now discussing a joint operation, he said.

The precinct sends officers to the intersection when possible, Allen said, mentioning they recovered some pants taken from Old Navy. A sergeant “has been bringing his personal leaf blower to clean up the trash,” Allen said. “We’ve made arrests,” he said.

But the department can’t monitor Little Saigon around the clock, Allen asserted. “As soon as we leave, they come back,” selling body wash, meat and alcohol, among other items, he said.

Ideally, the Police Department’s major crimes task force would conduct a long-term investigation aimed at any “shot callers,” but the force has been tied up, Allen said.

King County Metro has begun discussing the “potential relocation” of the bus stop by the Ding How Center, according to a spokesperson.

Such discussions have frustrated Quynh Pham, executive director at Friends of Little Saigon. The neighborhood needs services, not clipboard-wielding bureaucrats, and a welcoming bus stop, not a removed bus stop, Pham said.

Government leaders are constantly asking Pham to help them navigate relationships in the diverse CID, where views differ across class and generation on matters including how much police should be involved.

“The city doesn’t know how to deal with us,” she said. “They don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so nothing ever gets done.”

Big picture

The Watch next skirted South Dearborn Street, then Fifth Avenue South and South Main Street, past Danny Woo Community Garden. As a side effect, patrolling can remind volunteers what they love about the CID, Toles said, pointing out a dragon sculpture twisting around a light pole. For many Asian American people, the CID offers a special sense of belonging, he said.

The CID is resilient. Longtime restaurants have jumped online. New businesses have opened, including Hello Em, a coffee shop with Vietnamese roasts co-located with an art gallery, a community library and Pham’s organization.

Hye Hong, who started Chinatown’s Chung Chun Rice Hot Dog just before COVID-19, has dealt with tip-jar thieves and other challenges, she explained. But her sausages fried in rice batter are attracting long lines.

The city has been trying to help, Durkan’s office said. CID business and community groups have received about $1 million in grants over the past year, and the Parks Department has cleaned encampments, the office said.

The Police Department employs a liaison for the CID. The city boosted street cleaning in the CID this month from three to seven days a week, Durkan’s office added.

The city’s newest initiative is filling vacant storefronts with nonretail tenants. The Seattle Chinatown International District Public Development Authority is leasing space beside a dim sum restaurant to an artist collective. Jamie Lee, with the nonprofit, calls that “the beginning of something.”

Moving ahead, Durkan says the CID needs “an all-hands on deck effort by every level of government and deeper investments.”

Whether that occurs will depend partly on Harrell, who in a statement cited “chaos and dysfunction” at 12th and Jackson as discussed in mayoral-transition meetings.

Harrell wants to bolster police staffing, add nonpolice first responders and close encampments by providing housing, he said, mostly sticking to talking points from his recent campaign.

“Growing up, this neighborhood always served as a source of pride for me,” added Harrell, who will be Seattle’s first Asian American mayor.

Davison may also play a role. She accused the City Council this month of ignoring Little Saigon’s woes.

Meanwhile, the Watch’s mission keeps evolving, from patrolling to outreach to self-defense classes for seniors.

“We just got a grant for that,” Woo said. “Cane and walker defense.”

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