by Rachel Eagan
With signs held high above their heads, 40 plus protesters ascended the steps of Seattle City Hall’s Council Chambers Monday morning to address the City’s failure in engaging the Little Saigon community around the neighborhood’s planned growth and development.
A simple chant disrupted the full City Council briefing, “Talk to us, not at us.”
The protest comes on the heels of a decision to locate a Navigation Center, a 24-hour living facility for Seattle’s homeless individuals, at the Pearl Warren building in Little Saigon (606 12 Ave. S). At the time of the press release announcing the siting, Feb. 8, the City had already signed a 7-year lease, a result of 6-months of negotiations. However, for many community members/business owners in Little Saigon and the International District, this was the first they had heard of the Navigation Center.
“I have a group behind me of community members who are very concerned about the City’s process in engaging with ethnic communities, specifically immigrant and refugee communities throughout Seattle,” said Quynh Pham on behalf of Friends of Little Saigon as she addressed Council. “It’s not about the Navigation Center, it’s not about homelessness,” said Pham. “This issue is about respecting the public process and respecting our voices.”
While the siting of the Navigation Center came as a surprise, protesters noted that the City’s decision-making process—with little regard for marginalized communities, especially communities of color—was not surprising.
“We sent a letter respectfully asking for a pause so we [the City and the community] can figure it out together,” said Sue Taoka.
That letter was sent February 20 by the Friends of Little Saigon and the response from the City was mute until calls for protest began to rise.
After a hasty community meeting February 28, during which City of Seattle Director of Homelessness George Scarola informed a heated crowd that the Navigation Center was non-negotiable, a written response to the community’s plea for pause was received from the Mayor’s Office.
Lexi Potter expressed her concerns over the last minute response from the City, sent Sunday evening, the night before the protest. “The response from the City was unapologetic and instead seemed to say ‘We hear what you’re saying but we are going to do what we’re going to do anyway.'”
“It was patronizing, condescending, and disrespectful,” said Taoka.
As the group left Council Chambers to request a meeting with the Mayor’s office, they debriefed. A buzz of concerns filled the hallway as they waited. Worry over negative perceptions that could spin a request for engagement into pitting two communities against each other, immigrant/refugee vs. homeless, was audible.
Some also questioned Seattle’s recent national spotlight for declarations of it as a ‘Sanctuary ’for refugees and a commitment to being a ‘Welcoming City.’
“For the Mayor to not walk the talk, it’s very disappointing,” reflected Kim-Khanh Van.
While a meeting with the Mayor was denied, Council Member O’Brien did address the protest during the full Council briefing, “I’ve had a long and deep relationship with some of the advocates from the Friends of Little Saigon. Their complaints are not about the Navigation Center. Their complaints are about how the City has engaged, or in this case, failed to engage with them on siting in their neighborhood.”
“We as a City have to do a better job of reaching out to communities as we are locating these types of facilities. And we are going to locate them in places where it makes sense. But when we fail to do the type of outreach in advance necessary and get community input in advance of making these decisions, all we do is set us up for the types of battles we have and it undermines our ability to do the actual work we want to do,” said O’Brien.
Friends of Little Saigon and the immigrant and refugee community have vowed to keep the pressure on. “We ask that you directly engage with us,” reiterated Pham.
This is not a new request from the community. The hashtag, #HUMBOWSNOTHOTELS, in response to a 14-story hotel proposed just blocks away from the Navigation Center, draws its inspiration from late community leader ‘Uncle’ Bob Santos’s rallying cry against the construction of the Kingdome in the 1970’s, hum bows not hot dogs.
Engagement will prove critical as Seattle continues to grow at an exponential rate and the threat of displacement becomes a harried reality for marginalized communities.
Featured image: Rachel Eagan