BY KEN MOCHIZUKI
Stella Su-Li Chao, former executive director of the International District Housing Alliance (IDHA), knows about the homeless and the mentally ill. She commented on the proposed Downtown Emergency Service Center site in the International District (see related story).
The site will have too many units, and that assisting the homeless mentally ill with “more options” is the way to go, she says. The “healthiest” way is not sequestering them in a large complex, but allowing them to live among residents with mixed incomes and demographics – with those that can inspire them and create new opportunities.
“When you get a job with the big folks, you hang out with them and learn from them,” Chao says. “Once you segregate [the homeless mentally ill], you label them, relegate them to a demographic. Give them a broader understanding of everybody.”
For eight years, Chao headed IDHA before stepping down from her director’s position last month. The Housing Alliance, born in the late ‘70s, “is a non-profit agency committed to improving the quality of life for International District residents and Asian and Pacific Islanders of greater Seattle by providing low-income housing and related services,” reads its mission statement. While she searches for what she will do next, Chao, 51, took time out to recount an eventful life so far.
Born and raised mostly in Queens, N.Y., her parents had “tough issues with immigration” and were mentally ill, she recalls. As a result, she was sporadically homeless, sometimes for months at a time from ages 7 to 16.
“I learned real quick that trouble finds you,” she says. “It was hard to stay safe.”
She made the park her home, hid under bushes or in trees. “Nobody looks up,” she says. “Nature gave me safety.” She stashed candy bars in a tin and buried it in the park, found an old blanket and washed it. By day, she still attended school, eating her meals there and using the shower in the gym.
But one pleasure she did find in elementary school was volunteering to assist disabled kids in evacuating the school during fire drills. “There were air raid drills back then, too,” she says.
“I developed a relationship with the disabled kids – that never would’ve happened if I didn’t volunteer,” Chao remembers. “I was always volunteering for something. And I wondered: could I ever do community work full time?”
By high school, she found temporary homes at the local YMCA and with friends’ families, sometimes enduring “irritating questions” about why she was homeless. As the only person of Chinese descent in her neighborhood, she remembered it being a working-class Catholic and Jewish one. Her Jewish friends and neighbors, she says, were the “most welcoming and nurturing.”
When she left home at age 16, some of her high school teachers risked their jobs by helping her move out of home or not informing her parents where she was. And attending Bronx High School of Science was her saving grace. Teachers at that magnet school were “cutting edge,” she recalls – scientists and researchers who brought their work into the classroom, hooking her on science with lots of different clubs.
“The New York public school system gave me so much,” Chao says. “That was my stability – school.”
Attending the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she continued her enthusiasm for the sciences: ecology, evolution, neurobiology, animal behavior. In 1979, she ended up in Seattle, accompanying her boyfriend who was a graduate student at the University of Washington. Chao worked in a UW research lab specializing in teratology, followed by time at a UW blood vessel biology lab.
In 1993, Chao and her husband, Michael Smyser, a community development worker for the Minnesota International Health Volunteers, traveled to Kenya and worked to improve a slum area at the edge of a city. She also volunteered with the Kenya Red Cross, counseling refugees while the war of genocide was going on in Rwanda. Chao was able to communicate with the refugees because she spoke “some French,” and she witnessed the realities of refugee camps.
“Here we think refugee camps are the way to go,” she says, “but there is a lack of concern of the impacts on the refugees, lack of follow-up of the livelihoods of the people in these camps, major impacts on the communities these camps are in are not addressed, and there are major atrocities going on – they weren’t exactly sanctuaries. When no one is allowed to leave these camps, where’s the safety?”
And being in Kenya also allowed her to “learn about the United States you don’t learn about listening to the news.”
“As Americans, we are very isolated and insulated here. We need to learn to be less self-righteous and to appreciate our own privileges.”
After the two-and-a-half year Kenyan experience and returning to Seattle, Chao faced a dilemma: continue in the scientific field or, after what she experienced, engage in community work? She earned her master’s degree in social work and then went to work with Craig Shimabukuro, IDHA director during the mid-‘90s. She and Shimabukuro engaged in discussions over what would become IDHA’s Wilderness Inner-City Leadership Development (WILD), an intergenerational program teaching young people the importance of community responsibility through environmental justice education. Participating in a Community Fellows Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chao further developed the WILD program.
“WILD was implemented over the years as part of Craig’s vision,” she says. “He was the strategic thinker; I think I’m a good implementer.”
In 1998, Chao became IDHA’s executive director and remembers thinking, “What do I know about housing?” She assumed the helm at a time when “vacancy rates were the worst,” she says, especially for limited-English speakers.
“They couldn’t find anything,” Chao recalls. “Housing searches were crucial to people, there was a lot of gang activity, there was not enough programming to address the needs of youth, and the elderly were affected by development and business changes. I looked at IDHA’s role to advocate for the International District, and somewhere that had dwindled away. We had to be aware and involved in community situations – go back to the founders.”
In 1998, IDHA employed three staff members and operated on an $184,000 annual budget. Today, IDHA has a staff of 32 and a $1.2 million budget. Chao is particularly proud of the WILD program and the Home Ownership program – “the only multilingual home ownership program in the state,” she says – that teaches the basics, including the financial process, of acquiring a home.
This program makes the “wealth building opportunity that Americans have more equitable,” Chao says. “Home ownership stabilizes communities, it fights gentrification – it was a natural for us to go in that direction.”
During the beginning of this year, Chao submitted her name for the Seattle City Council seat vacated by Jim Compton.
“After working with coalitions, policy, impacts on communities, disproportionality – I wanted to do more. It was an opportunity to serve a broader constituency, create opportunities and access, a place where I could be a more effective advocate for underserved communities. Instead of just mopping up the mess, I wanted to turn off the tap.”
She says the media scrutiny she received when she became one of the six finalists was like “taking a bath in Pacific Place mall.” The media attention on the remaining five female candidates of color having weekly dinners together and supposedly snubbing candidate Sally Clark was a “misrepresentation” and “unfortunate,” Chao says.
“We were a group of women who had worked together out of the 101 applicants,” she says. “We respected each other because we had interacted with each other before. By the time there was six, five of us we were checking in with each other every week. Supporting each other was turned into a negative thing.”
On her decision to leave IDHA, Chao says: “I never thought about being executive director; it just happened. I didn’t want to be executive director the rest of my career; there hardly ever was a time there wasn’t fires to put out, and there wasn’t after a while; there was assurance of stability and I had confidence in my staff. Maybe it’s time to jump, figure out what I want to be when I grow up.”
As to what she does next, Chao says she is “taking it slow” and “only jumping at opportunities that stir me.”
“It’s more about the scope of the work and who I work for. I want to learn.”