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Africatown Community Home at Keiro Update

K. Wyking Garrett, CEO of Africatown. (right) Janice Lee, ACLT Program Director.(left)

By David Yamaguchi, The North American Post

The most significant Japanese community news story of late has been that of the former Keiro Northwest Nursing Home property being acquired by Africatown Community Land Trust (ACLT) for use as a 24-hour shelter for homeless men.

The story has raised the ire of Asian Americans, especially older Japanese Americans, for many reasons. The building housed countless Asian-American seniors for nearly 40 years (until mid-September 2019). That effort represented extensive community fundraising, support, and toil. The speed with which the ACLT arrangement was set up with City of Seattle funding was surprising and unsettling. To many, it comes across as the city helping one disadvantaged minority group at the expense of another. In short, as the city also needs nursing homes, why did it allow Keiro to fail, but later quickly back Africatown’s acquisition of the building?

The primary present concern among Asian Americans is for the safety of seniors who live in or use neighborhood facilities such as Kawabe House, Wisteria Manor, the Seattle Buddhist Temple, Midori Condominiums, and the adjoining walking paths of Wisteria Park and Pratt Park.

Safety issues pervade the consciousness of residents because many homeless are unemployed drug addicts, some of whom steal to support their habit. There is also the recent violence against Asian Americans owing to the COVID pandemic originating from China.

A second concern is public health related to the proliferation of used needles, feces, and plastic jugs of urine along sidewalks and curbs.

As the ACLT “Community Home at Keiro” is planning to open soon, it is too late to turn back the hands of time on the project now. Accordingly, most reader energy from now should be directed toward helping make the project work as best as possible for all stakeholders.

Nonetheless, one last “look back” here at how the homeless shelter at Keiro became a reality might help clarify its recent history and set the stage for looking ahead. The questions below are derived from discussions of this topic at the recent Africatown-hosted community meetings on Zoom (Sep. 16, 23, 30), each attended by about 60 people, and from reviewing related press releases and newspaper articles across recent months.

Was the City of Seattle “sneaky” in funding Africatown’s acquisition of the Keiro Building?

The story of ACLT’s acquisition of Keiro has admirably been reported most visibly by the Northwest Asian Weekly since July 8 (see Timeline, p. 6). The lack of broader news coverage has led some to ask why this was the case.

The most likely answer is that the Seattle Times, the International Examiner, the South Seattle Emerald, and the NAP simply missed the story. In retrospect, one reason why this happened is that the city’s press release on the project lacks the name “Keiro” in its title. Moreover, “Keiro” is buried in the seventh and eighth paragraphs of the document. (See Timeline, Jul. 29, 2021).

The low-priority Keiro wording was probably not intentional. The Keiro building is just one of several topics covered in the broader release.

Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), the founder of Jodo Shinsu Buddhism, watches over Wisteria Park. Wisteria Manor is behind him.

Does the ACLT-Keiro project disproportionately burden the Central Area and International District with resolving the city’s homeless problem?

While a few weeks ago this might have appeared true, it does not hold true today, given the city’s recent purchase of three new apartment buildings for homeless housing on Capitol Hill (Seattle Times, Sep. 20). The city appears to be purchasing buildings to house homeless wherever it can.

Indeed, resolving homelessness is the leading issue facing Seattle mayoral candidates (Seattle Times, Sep. 29).

What city parks near Keiro have homeless camping in or by them?

Local parks enter the ACLT-Keiro discussion because the meeting of September 23 made it clear that if Africatown can draw the homeless out of the parks, then it would be viewed as a “win-win” for both the project and its neighbors.

Tents in Pratt Park opposite Kawabe House.

The two large parks of primary concern within a two-block radius of Keiro are Wisteria Park (across the street from the Buddhist Temple; with an area of 1.25 city blocks), and Pratt Park (across the street from Kawabe House; 3 square city blocks). Pratt Park had tents as of September 28th (photo). While Wisteria Park lacked tents on the same date, homeless car-camping was clearly evident along its edges, complete with extension cords running across the sidewalk from a house to vehicles on 16th Avenue South.

Neighborhood map showing Keiro Building (red marker), Wisteria Park and Pratt Park. Photos: David Yamaguchi. Image: Google maps.

If ACLT-Keiro could similarly reduce the homeless camping adjoining the Navigation Center, at 12th and Weller, and from the International District, on King Street under I-5, it would also probably be viewed favorably by Asian Americans who must walk these streets. Dissatisfaction with the homeless lingering around the Navigation Center was raised repeatedly in the Africatown Zoom meetings.

Reviewing the timeline, the ACLT-Keiro project appears to be where it is owing to local market forces interacting with a rare combination of international/national events. In mid-2019, the city did not know that we would shortly be in a global pandemic that would place a premium on safe, isolated housing units for all. It did not know that the pandemic would be followed by the George Floyd killing and later rioting that forced a national reckoning: a realization that “business as usual” models would no longer suffice to resolve Seattle’s problems in 2021.

The world turns. Life is not fair. The ACLT Community Home at Keiro is real with an opening planned soon. The task before us is to find a way for Seattle Asian Americans and Blacks to find a way to cooperate on it for the good of the Central Area, International District, and the city.

Hopeful Signs

The upper management of ACLT-Keiro are smart, hard-working individuals trying to do the right thing to lift local homeless African Americans without turning away others because of race. To listen to them talk is no different from hearing any other well-meaning activists out to change the world. Africatown CEO K. Wyking Garrett formerly taught school with Paul Kurose. Janice Lee, ACLT Program Director, is working into the night these days, striving to make its Keiro project “second to none.”

Additionally, those who attended all three ACLT-Keiro Zoom meetings could not help but notice how the tone of the largely Black/Asian conversations shifted noticeably from the second to the third meeting. By then, discussions of “What is happening and how did this come about?” had changed to “How can we make this work?”

A Wisteria neighborhood group offered to help tidy Keiro’s garden, which has been neglected since 2019.

A neighbor reported possible drug sales on 16th Avenue South and South Washington and asked if the city staffers present could look into it.

Dietra Clayton, an ACLT consultant: “We’re going to need clothing, meals…”

Timeline

Mid-Sep 2019: Last Keiro Northwest nursing-home resident moves out.

Nov 21, 2019: Keiro Building is sold for $11 million.

Dec 16, 2019: COVID-19 patients begin entering hospital in Wuhan, China. FIrst Washington case follows quickly (Jan 21, 2020), with a statewide “stay at home” ordered (Mar 23).

May 25, 2020: George Floyd killing focuses national attention on Black Lives and Black inequality.

Jul 8, 2021: “Africatown Community Land Trust… is currently in the process of closing the acquisition of the property…” (NW Asian Weekly).

Jul 29: Press release, “City of Seattle Announces Partnerships to Open New Shelter Spaces…

Sep 2: Letter to Editor on Africatown-Keiro appears in NW Asian Weekly.”

Sep 16: First of three Africatown-Keiro community Zoom meetings.

Sep 20: City of Seattle purchases three new apartment buildings on Capitol Hill for $50 million to house homeless (165 studio apartments; Seattle Times).

Oct 14: Africatown-Keiro Open House (planned but later postponed)

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The North American Post is a community newspaper that celebrates Japanese culture in the Greater Seattle area. Founded by 1st generation Japanese-Americans in 1902, the publication is one of the oldest minority-owned newspapers in the region. Today, with bilingual articles in English and Japanese, the publication connects readers with diverse cultural backgrounds to Seattle’s Japanese community. Our articles include local news, event calendars, restaurant reviews, Japanese cooking recipes, community interviews, and more.