In October 2022, King County announced it would back down from a plan to expand capacity and services at the SoDo Lighthouse Shelter just south of the Chinatown International District (CID), and instead maintain the existing lease for the 270-bed, 24/7 enhanced shelter for the next five years.
The decision came after weeks of demonstrations from activists raising concerns about public safety in the CID, and King County’s lack of consultation with the community about the shelter expansion plans.
In December 2022, King County asked The Salvation Army to begin a Good Neighbor Agreement process with the surrounding community for the SoDo Shelter as part of its contract, said Marta Coursey, spokesperson for The Salvation Army Northwest Division, in an email. The shelter, which has existed since 2021, is operated by the Salvation Army, sits on County-leased property, and receives funding from King County and Seattle through the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA).
Over a year later, CID stakeholders are either not ready to sign the final draft of the Good Neighbor Agreement — or have not been involved in discussions around it.
Parties to the Good Neighbor Agreement, a copy of which was obtained by the International Examiner, are defined as: The Salvation Army, the SODO Business Improvement Area, King County, and the “Chinatown International District,” loosely defined.
“Anyone residing or working in the CID is welcome to participate in the SoDo Shelter GNA conversation,” Coursey said.
So far, the agreement has been signed by representatives from King County, The Salvation Army, SODO BIA, Downtown Seattle Association and Pioneer Square Residents Council, Coursey said.
“If a community group is not listed on the agreement, The Salvation Army will still welcome the group’s interest and feedback in our conversation about being good neighbors and they are welcome to sign the agreement at any time.”
In response to a request for comment, a King County spokesperson deferred to The Salvation Army for details about the Good Neighbor Agreement.
The Good Neighbor Agreement is not a legally binding contract. It is intended to improve communication between stakeholders around the shelter and find ways for them to collaboratively address potential concerns.
“There are no results if a community group signs the agreement or does not sign the agreement,” Coursey said. “Signing the agreement is an acknowledgement of The Salvation Army and the County working in partnership with the listed organizations on being good neighbors together.”
For Terry Yaplee, a board member of OCA Greater Seattle, the absence of any enforcement of the agreement raises concerns about accountability should problems arise.
Yaplee also noted that because residents don’t carry shelter ID, if someone staying at the SoDo Lighthouse Shelter left to stay in the CID for the day and caused trouble, or even overdosed, there would be no way to determine if they were associated with the shelter, and who bystanders could call for help apart from 911.
“It doesn’t really have any teeth, like, what can it do? What does it do to help us?” asked Tanya Woo, co-founder of CID Community Watch and co-leader of protests against the shelter expansion in 2022. Woo hoped that in the Good Neighbor Agreement, the Salvation Army would commit to reserving ten beds in the shelter for community referrals, so groups like the Community Watch could get people living outdoors into immediate shelter.
“With the SoDo Shelter, Navigation Center, Union Gospel Mission, there’s all these shelters nearby, but we can’t place people who are in need in the CID neighborhood,” Woo said. She has often walked people to the SoDo shelter only to be told there’s no capacity.
Coursey acknowledged that the SoDo Shelter is usually near or at capacity. To get in, guests must be referred to from a social services agency and go through the in-take process.
Helping people in need of shelter in the CID is a challenge, Woo said. “We go through this almost every single night that I walk, we spend an hour calling all the local shelters asking them if they have room, and most of them are like ‘yeah, we have one space open but you’ve got to get here within five minutes’ — or that they’re already claimed. And they’re across the city.”
Coursey said The Salvation Army could not provide data on how many shelter residents had formerly been living outdoors in the CID. “The Salvation Army believes it is a positive housing solution for our neighbors experiencing homelessness around King County and anecdotally estimate we serve many people experiencing homelessness in neighborhoods close to the SoDo Shelter including the CID,” she said in an email.
Woo believes the CID still does not have a voice at the table and an open line of communication with the Salvation Army regarding the shelter — which she said were the primary goals of the protests she helped lead last year.
Coursey noted that the Salvation Army has hosted three outreach meetings regarding the Good Neighbor Agreement, most recently in October at the Chong Wah building. “At each meeting, we presented drafts of the GNA, asked for feedback and answered questions,” she wrote in an email. Coursey said the Salvation Army invited a wide variety of CID stakeholders to these outreach meetings.
Many of these CID stakeholders did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the International Examiner about their involvement in the process and whether they would sign the Good Neighbor Agreement.
Julie Nielson, Asset Manager for InterIm Community Development Association, said InterIm has not been involved in the process.
“We haven’t been involved with shaping the Good Neighbor Agreement as weren’t [sic] included in the discussion/formation meetings despite advocating against the shelter expansion from the moment we learned about it,” Nielson said in an email. “As far as I know there’s no plan on signing it.”