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September 9, 2014 at 12:01 PM

Mayor Ed Murray should engage with Nickelsville and Little Saigon

Mayor Ed Murray is a man on a mission to make this city work, shepherding through legislation on contentious issues from raising the minimum wage to successfully pitching for a Seattle Park District and negotiating a compromise between ride-services and taxi drivers.

He could be even more effective by taking advantage of the opportunity before him to foster a positive, lasting relationship with the ethnic community in the Chinatown-International District. This is not the most politically active community in the traditional sense, but it could be.

A first step would be to listen to and address the concerns of Little Saigon business leaders, who are on their own as they figure out a culturally sensitive way to respond to Nickelsville’s move from the Central District to a temporary space at 1351 South Dearborn Street. The interim site was erected last week. Residents plan to move to nearby 1010 South Dearborn Street pending approval of a permit from the city.

A drive-by photo of the Nickelsville encampment at 1351 South Dearborn Street. (Photo by Thanh Tan/The Seattle Times)

A drive-by photo of the Nickelsville encampment at 1351 South Dearborn Street. (Photo by Thanh Tan/The Seattle Times)

The Seattle Times published an editorial on Aug. 28 calling on the city to find shelter for the roughly 40 residents living in the Nickelsville homeless encampments. Murray responded to a Times inquiry on the situation last Thursday by announcing the formation of a Housing Advisory Committee to come up with long-term plans to address the shortage of affordable housing in Seattle. This is a good thing, but it does not address the short-term confusion caused by Nickelsville’s move to Little Saigon’s perimeter.

As of Friday, Nickelsville residents had taken over state-owned land on South Dearborn Street between 12th Avenue South and 13th Avenue South. This is intended to be a temporary home as the city reviews Nickelsville’s request to move the encampment to 10th Avenue South and South Dearborn Street. (City officials have expressed concerns about the possibility of landslides in the area.)

Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim said the encampment is not breaking any laws, which is true.

The problem is the general lack of communication and sensitivity to an area that has worked hard to clean up its image and where business owners, residents and patrons have limited English speaking skills. This is a population that needs some extra help understanding the dynamics of Nickelsville, which is an organized homeless community with strict rules in place for its residents to maintain safety.

Since learning about the move late last month, the business group Friends of Little Saigon has asked Nickelsville and its current neighbor and advocate, the Low Income Housing Institute, to provide details on how they should educate their community about the encampment, as well as respond to any potential negative activities. They have asked for due process to include an assessment of the risk to their businesses if about 40 homeless residents set up sheds and tents on a section of town that greets visitors driving into the district and toward the stadiums.

This is not an unreasonable request. I suspect any other neighborhood would demand the same level of transparency and information.

Friends of Little Saigon President Tam Nguyen says they were surprised yet again last Friday to learn Nickelsville had set up in the temporary location.

“Right now, everyone in our community is concerned and they don’t know how it’s going to affect them,” he said. “Business is already hard. It’s going to be even harder.”

What’s the rush, anyway? In an email to me on Aug. 27, LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee said construction was not set to begin on the current Nickelsville site in Central District for another six months. Over the phone, she said she had offered to let Nickelsville stay on land next to the Ernestine Anderson Place. However, the Nickelsville residents wanted to honor a promise to not wear out their welcome after one year on the site. Hence, the move to South Dearborn.

In time, this might all work out just fine. Nickelville has a solid track record and an organized community that provides residents with safe shelter and a place to store their belongings during the day.

However, the roll-out was clearly botched —  and the hasty move to the International District sets a negative tone.

Little Saigon business owners are struggling to establish their political voice and fear being labeled as anti-homeless. The City of Seattle is not going to intervene. The homeless have nowhere else to go.

There are no winners here, unless someone stands up.

That person should be Mayor Ed Murray. This is a golden opportunity to engage a community that has long been fearful of government, from the time many of its inhabitants escaped an oppressive regime in Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s.

In recent years, business owners in the International District have faced the challenges of streetcar construction, attempts to increase parking fees and a new plan to increase the minimum wage that ignored their concerns.

Murray should help them to gain some confidence in the system by working with them, not ignoring them.

On Tuesday morning, his office sent out a news release announcing a “Find It, Fix It” Community Walk in the ID on Thursday at 6 p.m. starting at South King Street and Maynard Avenue South. Murray will participate, along with Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, City Councilmember Bruce Harrell and other department officials. The walk is scheduled to end at 12th Avenue South and South King Street.

This is definitely a good move on the mayor’s part, since these events are intended to improve Seattle neighborhoods and to “identify physical disorder and solve it.” Local patrons and businesses should take him up on this opportunity to engage in a meaningful way.

Comments | Topics: chinatown international district, homelessness


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