By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asia Weekly
There was only one moment when the Africatown moderator relaxed and smiled.
During two community engagement meetings, on September 16 and 23, in which the nonprofit presented its plans to convert the former Keiro Nursing Home into a homeless shelter, almost all community reviews were negative. But when Seattle Judo Club president David Fukuhara said he would like to welcome Africatown to the neighborhood, the moderator’s eyes filled with tears.
Fukuhara went on to say that when another nonprofit, Casa Latina, which helps Latino immigrants, moved to the neighborhood, her father explained to her why they should support her, against opposition from the community.
“It wasn’t that long ago that these same arguments were used against the Japanese,” his father told him. “I cannot in good conscience oppose it.”
Fukuhara added, now speaking to Africatown leaders, “If you are successful, we are all going to benefit. “
While the timing was abnormal, its intensity underscored the tensions and issues surrounding the project.
The challenges are in some ways even greater than those faced by the region’s so far hesitant attempts to tackle homelessness. There were 11,751 homeless people in Seattle / King County as of January 2020. And the problem has caused lingering problems in the Chinatown-International District (ID).
What makes the new shelter, which will be managed by Africatown Community Land Trust (ACLT), even more controversial is a massive sense of betrayal on one side – the Japanese-American community leaders who built or helped create de Keiro decades ago to care for their aging first generation.
On the other, the understanding and support of the community by a young generation of black activists who strive to put together a team to run a shelter to focus on caring for their community, which as in almost all other social determinants, is vastly over-represented. in the homeless population.
Adding to the challenge is a city map that appears to run on two separate tracks that could ultimately lead to a complication or even a collision.
On the one hand, the city has allocated up to $ 2,239,497 to fund the ACLT community home in Keiro until the end of this year. Next year, the King County Regional Homelessness Authority will fund the shelter until the end of 2022. But by the middle of next year, Africatown will have to reapply for funding for all of its programs under it. ‘a competitive process against other bidders.
But at the same time, according to Kevin Mundt of the city’s social services department, Africatown is also “in negotiations to purchase the property” from Shelter Holdings, the current owner. In an email, Mundt said Africatown was providing funding that could be bolstered by additional “proposed sources of funds,” including the state Housing Trust Fund, the Housing Finance Commission and the Housing Office of the city of Seattle. He hinted that funding would be closed in the coming weeks.
When asked if Africatown could acquire the property but then lose funding in just over a year to complete the project, Mundt said he “had nothing new to add” other than the details. that he had already provided on financing and acquisition.
The comments made by community members not only reflected feelings of outrage and betrayal, but highlighted the practical challenges that the Africatown team potentially face.
Tomio Moriguchi, one of the founders of Keiro, in an email to the city and government officials, said he could not understand why the city chose to fund a shelter “tailor-made to meet specific cultural needs. of the black community, although the proposed shelter must be located in the middle of a traditional Asian and Japanese community.
Moriguchi mentioned that 30% of the area’s residents were incarcerated without due process in 1942, referring to the concentration camps established for Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.
He also pointed out the many older Asians who live immediately next to Keiro who could be affected by shelter.
“Why does the city pit one community of color against another rather than promoting unity, cooperation and governance, programs and joint ownership? “
Additionally, Moriguchi’s dismay at the loss of Keiro, which closed in 2019, is largely reflected in the community. He added that hundreds of people had volunteered for decades and donated millions of dollars to keep this going.
Shelter Holdings, which acquired the property for $ 11 million, previously offered the building for sale at $ 13.8 million after the community objected to its plan to develop market-priced housing.
Africatown leaders have repeatedly stated that they hope to create a community where all ethnic groups can thrive. At the same time, they and their supporters said the shelter would be part of a project to tackle broken systems and white supremacist institutions that had banished black people from the region and largely disenfranchised, if not destroyed, them. .
K. Wyking Garrett, CEO of Africatown, said that while 25% of homeless people are black, blacks make up only 7% of the region’s population. He said the ACLT Community Home in Keiro “would be the first large-scale black homeless shelter.” The refuge is reserved for men.
Other speakers organized by Africatown said such a change was necessary, not only to reverse the generations of white supremacists installed in the shelter system, but to help change perceptions about black men that prevented them from returning to the shelter system. the community.
“You see a black man coming up and all you see is danger – and that can’t be the idea,” said Zaneta Reid, of the Lived Experience Coalition, in a distraught manner.
She said black men trying to get home would feel, “I’m back in my community and now I’m not wanted anymore.”
Concerns of the operator of the refuge
For the city, the homelessness crisis as well as the pandemic have created an acute emergency. Responding to criticism that the Japanese American and Asian community, as well as other local residents, had been excluded from the earlier planning process and that there had been no competitive bidding, Mundt said that the city and Africatown had to move “faster than normal. within the community engagement deadlines.
Yet Africatown leaders said they contacted the neighborhood and discussed the three community engagement sessions on September 16, 23 and 30.
Mundt said the new shelter would provide up to 150 non-gathering spaces, on top of the hundreds of hotel rooms and other spaces where homeless people can take shelter without increased risk of COVID-19 infection.
Some community members expressed dismay at Africatown’s apparent lack of experience in running a homeless shelter.
“Why doesn’t the city contract with the Low Income Housing Institute? Fred Kiga, Keiro’s former board member, asked at the first meeting. “They are experienced providers. You’re going to fend for yourself, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Moriguchi, in an email, said: “I am dismayed to learn that the city of Seattle, wielding honest democratic budget practices and under the guise of COVID-19 restrictions, has decided to fund an organization to run a shelter for homeless person who has no previous experience operating a homeless shelter.
He added that even organizations with experience found it difficult to manage shelters, and cited “the failure of the Navigation Center”.
Garrett said Africatown would partner with experienced providers, including the Salvation Army, Catholic community services and the city of Seattle. But he also said his organization would avoid some of the troubling traps of agencies that traditionally served the homeless.
While Africatown is still building a team, he said residents would be seen as “assets” rather than “liabilities”. He also appeared to imply that it being a black-led team working primarily with black residents would make a difference, although he did not clarify in an email request.
In response to another email, Garrett said that despite black people being significantly overrepresented in the homeless population, there is “an extreme deficit of effective and culturally appropriate services and resources.”
After giving a presentation on best practices and culturally appropriate care at the first meeting, Janice Lee, the project manager, returned at the second meeting and said she had an MBA in care management. health.
Most of the community’s comments, however, involved concerns about the potential for increased danger to the community, drug use, waste, and the spread of the coronavirus.
Emiko Mizuki said there was already an increase in criminal activity in the area.
“What steps will be taken to reduce this? ” she asked.
“What assurances do we have about residents so that they don’t exacerbate drug use? Asked Patty Fong, a community activist, who said there was already a huge amount of drug-related activity in the neighborhood. Fong, along with others, also lamented the waste issue and feared there was an increase.
Others asked if people living in cars in front of the property would be eligible to move in.
The format of the meeting involved Africatown recording questions and concerns and then responding to them either in the first session or in the second. A third session, scheduled for September 30, should offer specific solutions.
Africatown leaders and partners offered some preliminary responses.
Garrett said traditional measures, such as security cameras and patrols, were being discussed. But he said community safety is based on mutual trust and building strong relationships, and he referred to the block parties the organization has been hosting for years.
One supporter said drug use was the result of homelessness and not the cause.
Lee, the project manager, said Africatown would follow CDC guidelines to prevent transmission of COVID-19.
The ACLT Community Home is scheduled to open in mid-October.
The last community engagement session will take place on Thursday, September 30, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. To register, go to: https://bit.ly/3E5j7B5.
An open house will be held on October 14 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Mahlon can be contacted at [email protected]