Composite image of the Seattle Met
At the beginning of February, a comment on the Pike Place Market by Seattle City Council Speaker Debora Juarez sparked a new round of speeches about downtown Seattle. “I don’t go to the market anymore unless it’s Saturday, in broad daylight,” Juarez said during a economic development committee meetingadding that it is “a real security problem”.
Since then, the hot takes have been linked. Some are, quite literally, “Seattle is burning.” Others ignite by casting a shadow over concerns about crime and substance abuse. As the pandemic has shifted office types out of the city core, more and more of these narratives have only guessed the reality on the ground, where a few crises have converged: homelessness, Covid and, more insidiously, fentanyl.
Fentanyl overdoses in King County rose to 392 in 2021, from 171 in 2020 and three in 2015. Caleb Banta-Green, senior researcher at the Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told me that resources were gone from drug treatment to Covid response, a necessity imposed by chronic public health underfunding. “He can only handle one outbreak at a time,” says Banta-Green, “and meanwhile, this other outbreak just keeps burning.”
In response to fears over Downtown, new Mayor Bruce Harrell has launched ‘Operation New Day’, which takes a controversial turn first arrests, then services Approach to crime and drug addiction. He debuted at 12th and Jackson and third and Pine. “We kind of inherited a mess,” Harrell (we tried to warn you about this job, Bruce) explained during a press conference on March 4.
However, less than two weeks later, a Seattle Downtown Association Event took on a different tone. When asked to use one word to describe the state of downtown, city attorney Ann Davison said “hopeful”; King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones said “strong”; and City Council Member Sara Nelson said “in the making” (really).
But a cross-legged, suit-and-boots event isn’t the best way to take the temperature of all those hot takes on downtown, anyway. Over the past week, I’ve spoken to people who live and work at street level in our city’s core, granting anonymity in some cases for safety and employment reasons. Their reflections are not as dark as depictions of a recently fired local television journalistbut they are often far from reassuring, both about crime and the city’s response to it.
Aidanliving in an encampment in Chinatown—International District
Last week a sweep of South Weller Street displaced people staying in an encampment. Just down the road on Saturday, Aidan lived in a small corridor of tents. “It’s definitely hard to feel stable or wanted,” he says. When the city arrives, “the first thing we think of is, where the fuck are we supposed to go?” Aidan, who has struggled with heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl use, knows of services that can help (he also needs treatment for a cellulitis attack). But others, he says, aren’t informed or don’t understand what resources are available to them. “There are these people floating around.”
A worker at Seattle Chinese Herb and Grocery
Since police descended on, in the words of Ann Davison, an ‘outdoor drug market’ at 12th and Jackson, the sidewalk outside Seattle Chinese Herb and Grocery has remained clear, worker says the low. “The main thing is that we feel safe,” she told me. “We’ve been putting up with this for years.” Smoke was entering the building. “It’s not good for our health.” A salesperson joined the conversation. Before he asks her: “Can I deliver to another place?” Now it will stop fine.
Ronaldo Tomasclerk, community grocery store and delicatessen
Traveling downtown by bus from Federal Way, Ronaldo Tomas feels unsafe. “They always break into the store,” he says, most recently two or three weeks ago. After 10 years working at the Seneca Street company, he’s skeptical that Harrell’s approach will change anything in the neighborhood. “They’re trying to do something different this year, but normally they clean up [a] block, and these people, they just move to another block. He wants more police, but he’d also like to see the city do a better job “checking out which people need jobs, which people need homes, or which people need clinics.”
Brookeliving without housing in the city center
“It was pretty bad,” Brooke says of Third and Pine. She was squatting nearby over the weekend. Monday through Friday, she usually goes to a church near the West Quarter. “They don’t really bother me,” she said of the city authorities, adding, “Sometimes they ask me to move if I sit in one place too long.” She would rather stay outside than stay in a shelter. “I don’t want to sleep with someone’s feet on my face.”
A day porter in Pioneer Square
Amid the pandemic, a janitor in a building in Pioneer Square watched people walk past buses screaming. People threw stuff at him – a can in an alley where he worked, a chair in Occidental Park. “It was hard for me for a while wanting to come here, especially when everything was closed. I would just dread getting up in the morning – like, I don’t want to deal with any of this. easier lately,” he told me, putting aside a broom and dustpan. “Now I see more people are downtown, so all the bad things are mixing together. I see tourism coming back, shops opening up, so I’m optimistic.”
Henry FergusonSecurity Officer, Iron and Oak
The Downtown Seattle Association has hired a private security company, Iron and Oak, to monitor certain areas in the heart of the city. Henry Ferguson’s responsibility is the perimeter of Occidental Park, where he watches 10 hours a day, Friday through Sunday. “I don’t think it’s as dangerous as it’s probably said to be,” says Ferguson, who grew up in the Central District. “There have been serious circumstances and dangerous situations that have occurred over the past two years… But about crime today, I am certainly not as scared as I was just three weeks ago . Simply because after the last shooting and another death, they put officers there, and they [made] a concerted effort to move people away. And, at the same time, help them.
Olga Saganowner, Piroshky Piroshky
After a fatal shooting around the corner, Olga Sagan closed its Piroshky Piroshky Bakery on Third Avenue end of February. The pandemic has slowed foot traffic, she acknowledges, but she’s observed other city centers returning more quickly; she wants to see a “permanent and consistent solution” to crime in the neighborhood before she considers reopening. A mobile neighborhood on the street is “just a little band-aid to make it feel like, you know, it’s safer.” Sagan knows companies can receive backlash for confusing homelessness with crime, but she thinks recent events have made it clear that the latter is what drives her decisions. “I think we were brave enough to say, enough is enough. I think a lot of other small business owners are ready to talk right now.
Ravi Robinsonbarista, Cherry Street Coffee House at Pioneer Square
At one point during the pandemic, patrons of a cafe on First and Cherry first had to buzz into the building due to ongoing crime in the area. Ravi Robinson started working at the cafe about a year ago. The barista believes people can be “just extremely dehumanizing when talking about homelessness” or express “a lack of empathy” for addiction and other struggles. “I think people are taken aback by the onset of a mental health issue because they’re immediately scared…when it’s really uncomfortable, people make all these assumptions.” At the same time, Robinson says his own sense of security “could be very different if I was smaller or female.”
paige langhornebarista, Cherry Street Coffee House at Pioneer Square
Like Robinson, Paige Langhorne started at the boutique in 2021. “It works downtown in a city, you know. It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. When it’s daylight, she feels good for a walk. In the darkness of the morning, her husband accompanies her on her light rail journey. “Since I’ve been working here it’s like every other week someone gets stabbed or shot or something. I know there was that wife who got pushed down the stairs and really ruined it. There was one morning my husband got slammed by a guy repeatedly. It’s like that. These are tense times in general, and in spaces like this…it doesn’t really seem like that’s changed at all.
If you’ve ever hiked Pine on a Saturday, you’ve heard Constance Kuhnly. Rain or shine, you’ll find the Federal Way resident posted outside Nordstrom, thermos of hot tea ready, singing for hours. Kuhnly has been robbed several times over the years, but has no plans to move now. “What you see on the news is the extreme.”
Elkin Guerrerosandwich shop, Metro
Along Third Avenue, Elkin Guerrero offers a slightly different perspective. The sandwich maker has worked at Subway for four years and has recently seen an increase in drug use and crime in the store. “Since the start of the pandemic, everything has changed.” Among other incidents, a woman chased Guerrero with a knife around the store, leading to a police call. “I’m so scared. Sometimes I don’t feel like coming here. Did Harrell’s mobile compound help? “I feel a little safer, but as soon as the police leave, they start coming back.”
Billie Joanne Isbellstaying at the Catholic Community Services Bridge Shelter on Third Avenue
“I don’t think it’s as bad as it was – five or ten years ago,” Billie Joanne Isbell said of downtown while waiting for groceries on Sunday. “But it could still use a little work.” Isbell has been bouncing around in shelters for two decades, she says, and has seen how homeless people can be victims of crime in the area. “If you have a ball and they want it, then they’re going to have it.” Still, she thinks addiction is an insoluble problem, one that an increased police presence on Third Avenue isn’t going to solve.
COMPOSITE IMAGES: VIDEOFLOW, ROSESTUDIO / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM