In case you haven’t noticed, the debate about homelessness in Seattle has gotten a little toxic. At a time when homeowners show up to chant “bullshit!” at public hearings and socialists attempt to drown out city council votes they don’t agree with, it’s rare to hear about anyone actually changing their mind after talking to “the other side.” Which is why I was eager to sit down with a guy I met at a recent public meeting on a new “tiny house” village that’s currently being built in a vacant lot at 18th and Yesler and hear more about how he went from distributing flyers opposing the project to figuring out ways he could support the people living there.
Omeed, who asked me to use his first name only, joined a group called Yesler Neighbors that distributed flyers in the neighborhood around the tiny house village urging neighbors to write and call the city to demand that they put a “pause” on what they described as an “illegal encampment” based on a litany of what they described as land use and public notice violations. (See the full letter here). “We support ending homelessness in our city but believe it should be done in a transparent, legal, and thoughtful manner,” the letter left on neighbors’ doorsteps concluded.
After the meeting at Ernestine Anderson Place on South Jackson Street, which included a Q&A with project sponsors from the Low-Income Housing Institute and New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, I started chatting with Omeed outside. “I’m someone who changed his mind,” he told me—he now supported the encampment, although he still thought neighbors hadn’t received adequate information to form their own views on the project in the first place. For example, he said, he had been unable to determine whether the encampment would be “low-barrier”—that is, whether it would allow residents to consume drugs and alcohol on-site—and how the rules would be enforced. On Monday, Omeed broke ties with Yesler Neighbors to focus on other activist work—namely, electing Democrats to the state legislature through an organization called the Sister District Project, which sends activists into swing districts, like Washington’s 26th and 30th, to support Democratic candidates at the state level.
I sat down with Omeed in Pratt Park, just a few blocks from the tiny house village, which is currently under construction. Omeed, whose parents moved to the United States as refugees during the Iranian revolution, moved to Seattle about six years ago from Washington, D.C.; his wife is a native Seattleite with roots in the city going back 12 generations. They live a few blocks from the new tiny house village at 18th and Yesler.
How did you become aware that this tiny house village was being built in your neighborhood?
We got a flyer on our front door on May 15 or 16, and that same week, or shortly after, gravel started going down [on the lot]. It really did seem abrupt. We’re used to getting a certain amount of notification and time to understand what the project is. That was like—wait a second. But that part didn’t bother me as much as the fact that there were a lot of houses that did not get flyers, and there were houses several blocks further away from it, where it’s not necessarily in view, and they were flyered when I know some of the houses along the fence line never received any notice of it. I got it; some of my neighbors did not.
What did you think when you got the flyer? Were you supportive of the idea?
My initial reaction was like, ‘Cool, let’s save some lives. This might be great.’ My wife’s initial reaction was like, ‘I wonder if I can volunteer and help them with some landscaping stuff’—just do something that’s welcoming. And then we started hearing some other information, and then when you do some Google searches about these villages, Licton Springs [an encampment in North Seattle that allows drugs and alcohol] tends to be the thing that makes it up to the surface, and that was really jarring and it put some guards up. I’m a naturally defensive person. Growing up in a household where your parents are refugees, your mom’s an asylum seeker… siege mentality is a kind of natural thing to have. So my guard just tends to go up really quickly.
What was your concern related to Licton Springs?
Crime stats, the fact that there is open drug use—I don’t know how much is anecdotal or real. I only drove by. On the Aurora Avenue side, it was like, ‘Uh, this is an interesting part of town…’ Then the barbed wire along the top of it, too—it just seemed like that isn’t something that I necessarily want in my neighborhood.
You mentioned when we spoke before that your main concern was whether this tiny house village was going to allow drugs and alcohol. Can you talk more about that concern?
The flyer didn’t indicate if this site was going to be low-barrier. There was no information about it. When we went to the first meeting on the 22nd, I don’t recall that very strong commitment [to a no-drugs-and-alcohol policy] and that gave me kind of a pause. After that first meeting my guard went up a little more. More concerns started to bubble up.
I don’t think addiction is criminal. I can’t say that addicted people mean crime. I would be concerned, though, if there’s other folks that want to come there, [like] dealers. If that gets drawn over to it because they know it’s a low-barrier site where people are going to be allowed to use, that’s just not okay.
What changed your mind about this project?
I went to visit the 22nd and Union village a little while ago, and I talked with those folks, and they were just like normal working people. They’re just having a hard time. [Mayor Jenny] Durkan said in press release that these folks are, in a way, economic refugees. A segment of the population really is. Something like 40 percent, give or take, of the unsheltered population is employed in some capacity, and 20 percent of those are employed full-time. The fact that there isn’t enough housing that those folks can afford is disgusting. It’s a frustration.
I get frustrated when I hear things like Fort Lawton are held up in litigation, which just makes them more expensive to build. We declared a state of emergency a few years back and my understanding of a state of emergency is you suspend some rules and blockers because it’s a state of emergency. So I’m just thinking, what kind of state of emergency is it where things can end up in litigation or get blocked by neighbors because they’d rather have another park? We have lots of great parks. I’m not saying we shouldn’t find more ways to create green space, but this is an emergency.
So how are you feeling about the tiny house village now? Are you planning to volunteer to help them out, or put your efforts into pushing for other housing solutions, now that you know more about the project?
It takes a lot of effort to be in that mindset, to try and fight with the city and fight with this organization and do all those things. What I think might be a better use of my time moving forward, especially if I’m serious about building more housing and finding the funds to pay for it, is to make that call to the county saying, ‘You have nearly $200 million over 20 years to give to a profitable baseball team, yet you have yet to come up with a way to pay for [housing]. It’s there. We don’t have to subsidize these sport teams and these stadiums. We also don’t have to subsidize massive tax breaks to Boeing, the largest defense contractor and one of the largest companies in the world. It’s absurd to say we need to come up with these other revenue streams when the money really is there. It’s not a matter of efficiency in government or ‘audit this’ or ‘make cuts there.’ It’s, stop giving away money to people who already have millions of dollars and we’ll have it.
My wife is setting up the [National Night Out] event for our block and I said, ‘They should be invited.’ I don’t think I have to take anything out on the folks who are going to be living there. My gripes are with the city, the county, and the state—the people who refuse to actually do the things that need to be done to actually deal with this emergency. So I don’t see why I have to turn my back to those folks who otherwise need help.