‘Two truths’ about life in downtown Seattle: Vibrant, diverse atmosphere collides with drug use and street crime

ByShannon J. Cortes

Sep 5, 2021

SEATTLE — After moving to a downtown high-rise from the suburbs in 2013 to take advantage of the vibrant atmosphere and walkability of Seattle’s urban core, Ted and Priscilla Tanase are now looking to rent a place in the ‘Eastside to temporarily escape the open drug use, lawlessness and filth that makes them feel unsafe when they walk through their front door.

“We’re going to live away for a year and see what happens,” 79-year-old Ted Tanase said. “I just need a break from here. We have four adult children and none of them think it’s safe.

Haley Mae, a 27-year-old Seattle resident who works for a digital marketing company, spent her teenage years riding buses along Third Avenue to middle and high school. She’s lived downtown since October and says it’s “just as scary” as when she was a child, though she’s now more aware of her surroundings and avoids walking on Third.

“Growing up, (Seattle) felt really distant. Now that seems very relevant,” as the city has grown wealthier and attracted people from all over to move here, said Mae, who believes all downtown residents experience low-level trauma in watching people struggle with homelessness and seeing others shoot themselves. sidewalks. “I would like to know how to pick up the needles safely or that there is a place to put them.”

There’s a dual reality that downtown residents — especially those living in the commercial core — have seen unfold over the past 18 months, starting with the exodus of office workers at the start of the pandemic. of coronavirus and culminating with the return of cruise ships and tourists this summer: Although many tents housing homeless residents no longer line the sidewalks and there are clear signs of economic recovery, there remain concentrated areas of obvious drug trafficking, rampant shoplifting and street violence which collectively contribute to a heightened sense of unease.

“There are neighborhoods downtown that have kind of become a middle ground. And there are other parts that are great,” said Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association. “It’s sort of two truths that can happen at the same time. You can go downtown and have a good time at Pike Place Market (or Westlake Park)…and then two blocks away there are people doing drugs and suffering on the streets and others people benefit from it. It’s sort of our reality right now.

Several residents interviewed by The Seattle Times said that anyone who moves into the downtown core does so knowing that they will have to come to terms with certain sights, sounds and smells that come with the territory. Some remain cautiously optimistic that the deterioration of living conditions during the pandemic is a temporary situation. But others mourn what they see as the demise of their own empathy as they constantly walk around bodies and feces, dodging fights and praying they don’t catch a stray bullet.

They all agree that street conditions are not healthy for anyone, neither for those struggling with chronic homelessness and addiction, nor for those who fear for their safety as they try to live their lives.

Many homeless people living downtown have seen the price of apartments in the neighborhood or in the Central District and Beacon Hill as those neighborhoods have become more gentrified, said Mikel Kowalcyk, REACH outreach manager for the downtown. city. And many of these people, she said, have turned to drugs to cope with trauma and survive their lives, often choosing to stay downtown because of the relative safety it offers compared to setting up a tent in more remote areas of the city. .

People who have been living away for less than a year are not eligible for permanent supportive housing and after the Union Gospel Mission and the Downtown Emergency Services Center closed their overnight shelters due to the pandemic, there had far fewer places to go, said Kowalcyk, who receives a list of open beds in the city every day.

“On a good day, there are only eight or nine, but you have 10 different organizations that have hundreds of referrals that are set up in a day,” she said. “People want to come in, people want a better quality of life. We don’t have the resources to meet the needs.

Despite the challenges, data shows that downtown continues to grow and attract new residents: Over the past decade, 48% of Seattle’s residential growth has been concentrated in the three square miles that make up the downtown, from Denny Way to Pioneer Square and from the waterfront to Interstate 5, according to the DSA. More than 6,400 new residential units will have been built downtown by the end of the year, the DSA said in an August news release, with another 5,500 units expected to be completed by the end of the year. of 2022. The average market rent in the area exceeds $3,000 per month.

Today, with a residential population of 98,000, nearly a tenth of downtown residents live in the mall, just blocks from Pike Place Market, the 5th Avenue Theater and the Westlake. Center. The area is particularly attractive to workers who don’t want to drive to work, families and the elderly, who have easy access to doctors and pharmacists and can create tight-knit communities and live in buildings with elevators, said Scholes, who has raised her own children downtown for nine years.

A year and a half after the pandemic shuttered many amenities that drew downtown residents to the area in the first place, public life has returned in many ways. While the number of office workers traveling to the city center has remained stable, with only 24% of pre-pandemic workers returning to their office buildings, 75% of businesses and arts and cultural venues that have been forced to close due to COVID-19 have reopened, Scholes says. From May to August, the city center also saw a return of out-of-town visitors, and at a summer high a few weeks ago, tourists made up 87% of their pre-pandemic numbers and 70% of hotel rooms were occupied, he said.

The DSA is spending more than $500,000 this year to pay off-duty Seattle police officers to patrol downtown streets at a time when on-duty Seattle Police Department patrol officers are stretched thin amid a crisis of city-wide staffing and often don’t. respond to 911 calls unless a violent incident has occurred, Scholes said. The trade association, which employs its own downtown ambassadors and homeless outreach workers, is also contracting a pressure washing company to hose down alleyways and sidewalks, augmenting the city’s own cleanup operations. DSA to rid the streets of urine, feces and other biohazards, he said.

Crime statistics in the region are difficult to analyze: SPD data shows a dramatic drop in violent crime and property crime between 2019 and 2020, but any comparison is skewed by factors such as population decline daily visitors due to the pandemic.

sergeant. Randy Huserik, a Seattle police spokesman, confirmed that downtown police officers switched to bike units years ago, so officers are no longer as visible on downtown streets. city ​​as they once were. The department’s navigation team, which was created in 2017 and comprised of police and outreach workers who worked to clear homeless encampments and direct people living outside to shelter, took ended abruptly last October after political clashes between Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and the Seattle City Council.

During the ongoing pandemic, Seattle police are also restricted from jailing people for most non-violent offenses, he said.

“We can no longer arrest for simple possession (of drugs), which doesn’t leave us many options,” Huserik said.

The west side of Third Avenue, between Pike and Union streets, remains a problem. An encampment of about 30 residents is no longer there, but the block remains a gathering place for drug addicts, outside the boarded-up storefronts of the neighborhood grocery store, a TJ Maxx, a gyro restaurant and a beauty, artist and downtown store, said resident Cynthia Marin.