Photo depicting an unhoused individual pushing their belongings up a street in Seattle's Chinatown-International District. A mural of Bruce Lee and Karem Abdul-Jabbar looks on in the background.

With Contentious Shelter Plans Canceled, CID Residents Organize Their Own Safety Solutions

by Amanda Ong

In September, King County announced plans to build a new shelter for the unhoused in SoDo, near the CID. The plan was highly controversial as there had been little to no outreach from the County to the CID about the proposal before the plan was announced. The County even seemed to avoid community input by scheduling public hearings during weekday work hours, preventing attendance from many working residents. 

Residents of the CID spoke up against the proposal, citing the lack of outreach as a form of systemic racism, forcing the CID to bear the burden of servicing the unhoused, while other white-majority neighborhoods are never expected to do so. Other residents spoke up in support of the shelter, citing the need for services to the unhoused who are residents of the CID too. The CID serves as a home to many different residents, making the issue of how to navigate support for the unhoused and community safety contentious, with the two often pitted at odds with each other. In light of the controversy, the County canceled the shelter plans in October. No plans have been made to support the CID’s unhoused community in its place, and yet, the issue of safety for both the unhoused and other residents remains. 

“I’m able to come to the pretty clear conclusion of most issues, but this one has been pretty hard for me,” Bao Nguyen, owner of CID coffee shop Phin, said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “We have advocates for unhoused folks who are doing the best they can to show compassion and to advocate for these folks, and see them as victims of larger issues. And then the other response from other community members is like, how many times has it been that the CID is somehow picked to host another shelter? We never really get a beautiful park, or a beautiful community center. [Both responses are] about protecting the community though, it’s just different approaches. But for me, it’s frustrating and a little sad to see the issue dividing the community.” 

The response to the cancellation, much like the response to the original plan, has been mixed. Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and came to White Center as a child refugee, says the issue has put him in a difficult position as a business owner who sees his role as creating space for the community — including the unhoused, who also can cause safety concerns for some of his guests. 

“The homelessness crisis does have an impact on the business, and not just mine, but the whole neighborhood. I do hear directly from a guest that they feel uncomfortable or unsafe,” Nguyen said. “I try to think of issues from an abundance mindset, not a scarcity mindset. And for me, that means that we can take care of everyone’s needs, to feel safe, and to feel happy, and to enjoy life. That includes unhoused folks and grandma and grandpa, who want to walk around and not have to feel uncomfortable. To ask those folks to not feel uncomfortable and unsafe is not fair either, because that’s just who they are and their experiences. We have folks who are so compassionate and capable of organizing support and help for everybody in the community, but we just don’t have the resources.”

While the County has not yet taken next steps to support the unhoused residents of the CID, CID community members have been and continue to work on the ground to do so themselves. Another small business owner, Thanh-Nga “Tanya” Nguyễn, a community elder and owner of ChuMinh Tofu in Little Saigon, provides over 200 meals to unhoused residents every Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. She pays for these meals out of her own pocket, and mutual aid organizers, known as “The Eggrolls,” have since stepped in to help her. Nguyen herself recently wrote a letter to Mayor Bruce Harrell articulating her thoughts and hopes on how we should approach the housing crisis:

“If we keep relying on sweeps, these community members just continue to live in inexcusable conditions. We also just can’t stop the sweeps and do nothing in return–as a small business owner, I know that it is not sustainable for small businesses to have to manage unhoused community members ourselves. I propose that we should define an area with tiny houses for them and give them a place to live, and connect them with services so that they can live at an acceptable living standard, so that they can find a job and have medical and rehabilitation services. This can happen in small changes–like putting trash cans by the camps, connecting them with jobs for even a week or a day, so that they have some money. … If we pay them with jobs like picking up their trash and cleaning up their space, then the city wouldn’t have to spend so much money on cleaning up the city themselves.

“[The unhoused] are people too, and members of the community, and they all have stories we don’t know about how they ended up in their situation. If we open our hearts, I think everyone will love them, as they would any of our neighbors and as I have come to love them. But in order to do this, we need to listen and to create better conditions for them to share their stories.”

Recently, ChuMinh’s Eggrolls have joined Safety Not Sweeps, a coalition organizing for housing justice and alternatives to sweeps in the CID. The group also includes Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), DUST Network, CID Coalition, Massage Parlor Outreach Project, Defend the Defund, Solidarity Budget, Song2Sea, and Bayan Seattle. The coalition has started by trying to listen carefully to the needs of the community, and particularly by creating a network of dialogue with business owners who don’t want to be made responsible for the unhoused in the area and have been forced to rely on short-term solutions from the County. Safety Not Sweeps did not have a response statement on the proposed SoDo shelter, but members acknowledge that the issue was complicated.

“The whole setup of the SoDo shelter was really skewed, because they really didn’t consult the community,” J.M. Wong, a member of Massage Parlor Outreach Program and Safety Not Sweeps, said in an interview with the Emerald. “But the fact that there would have been more services for unhoused folks, that was a good thing.”

Johnny Mao, a member of The Eggrolls and Safety Not Sweeps, says they have been looking for alternative models of safety. For example, in the U-District, businesses have pulled together to fund a community case worker who personally has built a relationship with the neighborhood and has specific training to address unhoused residents who have no resources. The case worker addresses many of the issues that would usually be directed to the police. Safety Not Sweeps is also calling for sanitation services as simple as garbage cans and more proactive cleanup. In terms of drug rehabilitation, they advocate for harm reduction and safe, supervised injection sites, which have been implemented in New York and shown to significantly minimize chances of overdose. As it is, drugs and medications are often confiscated during sweeps, which can put the unhoused into a dangerous place of withdrawal.

“I think the City puts out this message that people choose to be homeless, they get offered services, and so [sweeps] are the only option,” Mao said in an interview with the Emerald. “That narrative also repeats itself with the campaign against the shelter, that [unhoused] people are inherently violent or bring crime to the neighborhood, but really, people who are homeless are more likely to be victims of crime. Sweeps just make things worse, policing just makes things worse. People lose their medications, their belongings, someone actually lost the urn of a family member’s ashes during a sweep recently. It is extremely disruptive and traumatic. … People don’t want to pack their things and have to go to a shelter due to a sweep. Most shelters only have one large room for people to stay in all together. People just don’t feel safe in shelters, and understandably so. So we see this perspective, we try to learn from unhoused folks. The tens of millions that [the City] spends on sweeps could be used on alternatives.”

Safety is a critical issue in the CID right now, but these organizers pose that it does not need to be at odds with the existence of unhoused residents in the community. More than that, as a community descended from displaced groups themselves, the CID can be all the more capable of showing compassion and supporting the unhoused.

“The lack of safety that people feel in the neighborhood, I want to honor that,” Wong said. “But we see unhoused folks living in the CID as also residents of the CID. And as someone who sees the CID as my cultural home, I also honor the legacy of our community. It’s a place where displaced people have found home and survival. Our ancestors came and needed a place, and this is where they found themselves. So this idea of unhoused people ‘taking over the neighborhood’ I find really disturbing coming from folks who have been displaced.” 

While plans for a shelter for the unhoused have been halted and any other plans to address the unhoused in the CID are undetermined, that has not stopped the residents of the CID from making plans. The County made plans for the shelter without consulting the CID, but that’s not to say residents do not already have a vision of safety for themselves.

“People just want trust and connection,” Mao said. “People want others to look at them warmly and look out for each other. These are basic things that people want to feel safe. And so we just want to offer that space without the model of punishment.”

To support Safety Not Sweeps, sign its petition to put a moratorium on sweeps and redirect funding to sanitation, community-based public safety, and long-term housing options. You can also sign on directly to its letter of demands to Mayor Bruce Harrell and councilmembers, sign up for online or in-person comment at the public budget hearing on Nov. 15, write a comment at any time, or contact your City Councilmember. Finally, you can follow Safety Not Sweeps and its coalition members on Instagram and Facebook.

Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 11/24/2022 to include Song2Sea to the list of Safety Not Sweeps coalition.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Although the County abandoned the idea of building a shelter in the CID, residents and businesses still feel without adequate resources to create community safety and support for everyone. (Photo: Jaidev Vela)

Before you move on to the next story …

The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.

If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.

We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!