(This is the second of a two part series. You can read part one on the White Center Quarantine Site here.)
words by Ari Robin McKenna
photography by Chloe Collyer
Last Thursday, while two large excavators dug deep trenches for lengthy sewer pipes at the White Center Quarantine Site, two County employees walked past on 112th, shades on against the midday sun and shoulder bags full of paper. David Daw and Bong StoDomingo retained the appropriate social distance from each other while Chloe Collyer snapped their picture. They’d produced public health information about the upcoming quarantine site, featuring Frequently Asked Questions–one of which has been echoing on this street for weeks: “Why were communities not consulted in advance of siting?”
David and Bong were just beginning this important work, and they had already been rebuffed.
While trying to distribute translations of their literature in six languages at the enormous SOUTHSIDE by Vintage mixed-use apartment complex, they were told by management, bluntly, that all pamphlets must be distributed in English.
One of the leaders of the local opposition to the site, The White Center Community Alliance, happened to be with them, but instantly they found they had an ally in resident Rita Aronson, who had already communicated with the buildings’ management company, FPI, about other issues in the past.
In these dogged, pandemic days, when, as Josh Castle of Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) puts it, “Every day is like a month now,” somehow their sudden cooperation makes sense.
After all, the spread of this virus is dependent on our species’ inability to cooperate, and that it can outpace reliable information. Yet in our region, and in this divided, individualist nation, where people are panic-buying guns like there’s no tomorrow–presumably to protect the vats of hand sanitizer and mountains of toilet paper they hoard–our response to COVID-19 will succeed or fail by outpacing the virus at the speed of trust.
Mayor Ralph, Sili Savusa and the Council Vote
Just eight days before, on March 10th, when social distancing was barely a thing–let alone a mandate–more than fifty people sat in the King County Council session, as the council approved funding for the four quarantine sites. This vote came despite a popular survey against this particular site, a host of valid community concerns voiced by dozens of White Center residents, the realization that the Equity Impact Review tool (EIR) had been all but ignored, and a dramatic last second amendment sponsored by Council Members Girmay Zahilay and Joe McDermott to decouple its funding from the other site in Kent and the two up north.
$19.5 million of the $28.2 million approved funding went to a facility in a city whose mayor had already sued for a restraining order against the site. Kent Mayor Dana Ralph heard from a resident in her city about the site, because King County had not thought it necessary to give her a heads-up, and she continues to vocally question both the location of the site and the county’s presumptions when dealing with communities in the south end of the county. Ralph has been clear about the opportunity cost of not consulting her. “I can think of several properties we could help them out with that would have less impact,” she said.
Sili Savusa, called by many “the unofficial mayor of White Center,” was by many accounts the most impactful speaker at the council meeting that day. As the head of the White Center Community Development Association (WCCDA), she’d earned her nickname through decades of fruitful organization work in this unincorporated area. Sili fought back tears during her testimony:
“I come with a heavy heart…Nobody asked me. If one person had just come to me and said, Sili, ‘This is coming down the pike…’ We could have told you there’s a vacant, empty lot on 146th and 1st Avenue…This community, once again, is put in this place, this feeling of oppression, and it digs up and brings forward a lot of the historical, racist, institutionalized behavior that White Center has suffered from over the years…I’m so hurt, because your work is my work. Relationships matter. You guys [Council Members] are my friends.”
The council did approve $1 million in crucial funding for, “populations with language access needs,” which allows for Bong and David’s attempt to reach people in languages other than English. Yet this task is daunting–the Kent school district serves students in more than 130 languages. Because White Center is part of the Highline School District and is unincorporated, a reliable number is harder to come by, but one in three residents would not benefit from an English-only pamphlet.
Both Sili and Mayor Ralph are women who are well-positioned leaders of their communities, with visible platforms and extensive access to both the traditional and the grassroots social networks needed to channel trustworthy information. Even if the county government claims it didn’t have the time to complete an Equity Impact Review because of this unprecedented emergency, sidestepping the point people in both communities on top of that is suspect.
The site the county chose in Kent is next to the principal exit off Hwy. 167, and is a mile from the small city’s hub on Kent’s aptly named Central Ave. But if the Kent choice of a quarantine site feels flippant or misguided, the White Center site choice is just bizarre.
The quarantine site currently being prepared on 112th is located on one of the denser blocks in the entire county–either north or south of downtown Seattle. The median income in White Center is 40 thousand dollars less than the Seattle median income, and inside the 638 units on that block alone, you are much more likely to find service workers–whose jobs will likely continue even during shelter-in-place–and intergenerational living situations with vulnerable elders inside. Additionally, neighborhood residents are more than twice as likely not to have health insurance than residents of Seattle. The chances of someone leaving the site and infecting this particular community on this especially dense block is a dire risk the county seemed obtuse to.
Escapee Alters County Policy on Kent & White Center Sites
While the county tried to assure people surrounding both sites that they didn’t pose a threat to the community, they had little time to coalesce their messaging, because two days later, just the second person quarantined in any of the county’s four sites, bolted.
Ignoring the guard’s suggestion that he stay, the person under quarantine left the facility, stole a donut from the Shell station across the street and bounced uptown on the 153 bus, his COVID-19 test results pending.
The incident sparked an array of headlines in the media:
Kent Reporter: Patient flees Kent quarantine facility, hops northbound bus
Seattle Times: Kent officials: Homeless person quarantined in Kent left facility
NPR: Coronavirus getaway: Man departs early from Washington state quarantine site
NYTimes: An Isolation Center Opened to Protect People From Coronavirus. Then Someone Wandered Out.
In short, King County’s naivete about rushing the unhoused into sites in South King County had gone nationwide. They responded with the following concession:
“As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds and resources are rapidly moving to meet public health needs, King County is shifting the Kent and White Center sites to help people who do not need supportive social services.”
King County Executive Dow Constantine, on his County Facebook page, responded with strong equity language–presumably after he had been pressured by recent events into revisiting his own EIR tool. He apologized for the nature of the emergency causing him to skip outreach and mentioned the historical legacy of racism impacting these communities. He went on to say how difficult land use decisions were stacked against places like these as a result, and said that he understood that communities felt threatened that the sites would cause further disenfranchisement.
Then, before concluding, he added:
“Additionally, we are all aware of the profound disenfranchisement of those who have no home, a population that has long exhibited stark racial disproportionality. Our equity and social justice work at King County calls us to identify those who will be most affected by an .action[sic]—or inaction—and then center them in our analysis.”
One could argue that Constantine implies that above and beyond the concerns of White Center and Kent in the hierarchy of need, are the disproportionally BIPOC unhoused. And in his use of the word “inaction,” there is perhaps the slightest whiff of acrid blame wafted towards both Mayor Ralph and the White Center Neighborhood Alliance, who have cried foul as these sites were unilaterally dropped into their midst. In reaction to the media hoopla over the escaped person under quarantine–the county still appears to be searching for other options for the unhoused.
But was this what the White Center Neighborhood Alliance was pushing for? Were they just looking to leverage this situation to make sure that the homeless population would not be quarantined in their midst?
We spoke to three members of the White Center Neighborhood Alliance, and asked them about their primary concerns with the siting of a quarantine on 112th in White Center.
In their own words, here’s what actually concerns them:
“We have been here for twenty four years and have been through the ups and downs of White Center. We are feeling that we were kind of getting better, and now with this situation with this virus and the containers over there, it’s kind of going back to the…to the past. ‘The low income community’–this has always been the stigma in White Center…what we’ve been working on is having people out of the area wanting to come to White Center.”
“As a resident, I’ve been concerned about just the lack of political power that folks here have in terms of land use decisions, and so this quarantine site, having placed it here, I see that as a demonstration of what happens in communities when they’re not offered or given access to the decision-making processes. For instance, we didn’t get a say when they decided to site these quarantine trailers here. We most certainly want a say in what happens with this site after the state of emergency is declared over.”
“When people say that we’re NIMBYs because we don’t want it here, I think that the whole strategy is a NIMBY strategy, to put it in poor neighborhoods first where folks have less of a way to argue.”
“White Center is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse areas in King County. There are 26 languages spoken here…in an unincorporated highly populated urban area. So it’s very difficult to organize folks and let them know ahead of time, and the County knew that.”
“We continue to oppose this quarantine site being sited here, and not because we don’t want to help out with the way that this outbreak is being handled, but because the County is not allying with us to really bring forth the outreach and community education that would be required for us to be safe here.”
“We are all on board for protecting our community…we just want to be part of the process.”
“The site was chosen in such a bad way, without thought and planning, and also felt like to me that this was being used as a test on poor communities…to see how the quarantine sites will work before they get them in the more affluent communities–because it looks like they’re gonna be coming there as well.”
“We’re looking at the vulnerability of this actual community, and also the folks that will be placed in the quarantine. I don’t think this site is properly set up for people with behavioral issues…I’ve been homeless before, so I have probably a little bit different understanding of it. My heart goes out to people that are homeless right now. I think they need these quarantine sites too, but I think they need the proper staff, as far as behavioral health specialists, counselors, substance abuse counselors, maybe even methadone clinics set up on their specific quarantine sites. Because having no staff able to deal with people with those types of issues is not good for the community or the people that will be placed in them [quarantine sites].”
While King County has ramped up its outreach efforts in White Center during the last week or so, the stigma this community has long carried combined with the initial shock of the county’s odd, go-it-alone choice of sites is still ringing in residents’ ears, hindering the County’s current efforts to communicate vital information to its constituents, and delaying the activation of useful allies within the White Center community.
In this era of fake news, propaganda bots and a mainstream media that has been unable to retain its credibility, the connection between local governments and community networks becomes the vanguard for combating the spread of COVID-19. During these days like months, when confounding crowds still gather in public despite the elders they endanger, King County has the additional pressure of finding quarantine spaces for those who require social services. They are not in an admirable position, and their work is both delicate and difficult, but hopefully they will proceed without thinking that skipping equity considerations and bypassing local expertise is the most efficient path.
Just a mile north over the Seattle border, towards the convergence of state Route 509, the Pacific Highway, and the Duwamish waterway, sits a LIHI transitional housing facility called Camp Second Chance. Eric Davis has been working miracles at the speed of trust there since about the time when the equity tools were developed in 2016, and a year after homelssness was designated its own ‘state of emergency.’ His take on the White Center Quarantine site:
“In all fairness, you should have started out being fair from the beginning.”
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA, and is now settled in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach) and writing. He is currently pitching a novella called, “On a Moonlit Landing.” Check out more of his work at arirobinmckenna.com.
Chloe Collyer is a a Seattle-based photojournalist.