We the Living

June 9, 2018 ~ (Originally published on the Safe Seattle Facebook page)

We’ve been talking with SODO business owner Ari Hoffman about his efforts to get the city to keep the area around the Bikur Cholim Jewish cemetery clean of squatters and trash. It’s been a difficult process. Even with the local media and Jewish communities solidly behind him, Ari is having trouble keeping this sacred place sacred.

At our request, Ari provided us with a timeline of events . . .


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Ari Hoffman

Two years ago, the Mayor’s office and City Council squared off when a plan was released showing that the Council was planning on letting green spaces be used as homeless encampments. The Jewish Community was very concerned because we are not allowed to drive on the sabbath or holidays, so we walk everywhere. (Little known Jewish fact: [observant] Jews are required by Jewish law to give 10% of their earnings to charity.) Our synagogues all have at their root the term Bikur Cholim which translates to helping the sick, because that’s what we do: We help people. And we want to KEEP helping people, but the criminal element is not being addressed here, and that’s a problem.

In response to me organizing the Jewish community to speak out to stop this proposal, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle organized a meeting with CM O’Brien prior to election day of 2016. Nothing came of that meeting, however. The highlight was O’Brien saying “Knock on wood, when the right person is elected, we’ll have more resources to deal with homelessness.”

Exactly one month later we had a meeting with CM Tim Burgess. That meeting was slightly more productive; he at least gave me names of contact people who were working on the homeless problem, and I submitted a rough plan to them to take derelict properties and turn them into homeless shelters. They told me they could not implement these plans because they couldn’t change the zoning of these properties.

Things over the next two years continued to get worse for the cemeteries up north and also around my office in SODO. RVs have moved in, and lately we have been finding needles, feces, garbage, meth and other things at both locations. Truckers in SODO are taking advantage of this as well, by parking wherever they want and doing oil changes right in the street. At night, they fight over “their” parking spots, and bullets have come through my office windows. I have found homeless, mentally disturbed people stripping on my loading dock.

At the cemetery, it goes beyond just homeless people living there. Prostitutes and drug dealers have started working the nearby woods. The synagogues that fund the cemetery have had to spend $110,000 installing lights and cameras and clearing an area not due for development for 30 years to address the problem. RVs are parked out front and mourners are ticketed for illegal parking but not the RVs. Groundskeepers are assaulted. Vagrants use [redacted] to break into our chapel rest rooms and set up camp in them. They hack our power. They tap into the cemetery’s water. We have a ritual where we wash our hands after being in a cemetery, which we now cannot do because we have had to lock all the spigots. Every morning we find more and more things on the tombstones. Police almost never respond. If they do it takes 3-5 hours, even when our groundskeepers were being assaulted!

By late April, I’d finally had enough. I started calling the media and the story got picked up. I even caught a man on camera with Q13 letting his dog do its business in the cemetery. Still nothing was done. The RV dwellers got tired of the media attention and moved on, but they didn’t go far. They parked at other cemeteries in the area. Last Thursday, after multiple calls I made, Councilmember Juarez’s office set up a site visit for this Tuesday. On Monday the staff called me to tried to reschedule. I said no.

By that time most of the campers had left because of the bad PR. And then (!) the navigation team finally shows up to deal with the one remaining tent. That’s the guy who was interviewed in King 5 news.

Juarez didn’t show up Tuesday to the cemetery and sent her staff instead. Thirty some community members did show up, though, including all denominations of Judaism, employees of nearby hospitals, cemeteries and neighbors who are all dealing with the same thing. That was covered pretty well on Q13. A new tent appeared that morning and the police came promptly to deal with it in advance of the visit of the staff.

I have sent emails to every councilmember and the Mayor. The Mayor responded saying navigation team was dealing with the problem, even though they had not been. O’Brien’s office finally got back to me this week and said the head tax will fix everything. The back and forth on that was fun.

Despite the fact that the cemeteries are in her district, Juarez’s office has stopped returning my emails. I have been calling Harrell for two weeks and his office finally said to me today he would prefer to work on it with DPD and that he wont take a meeting with us. [Note: Harrell has since agreed to meet with Mr. Hoffman. That’s scheduled for this Thursday.]

I went to the “town hall” meeting sponsored by the SODO BIA, and after the meeting, I confronted Councilmembers Herbold and Gonzalez about the Council issuing a stand-down order to SPD. They claim no such order was given, even though police officers have told me it has been. Additionally, I told the members about Juarez not showing up and Juarez’ comments to the Jewish constituent comparing his comments about vagrants in Seattle to the way Nazi Germany treated the Jews. (That exchange was documented in the Seattle Times.)

Every year our synagogue runs an event before Memorial Day to put flags on the graves of veterans in our cemeteries. I have informed the Council that armed congregants will be protecting the kids who do this and will deal with anyone who should not be on the property. Some of the security I have found for this event are former [Israel Defense Force] soldiers.

The cemeteries are filling out damage forms with the City and may have to litigate if the $110,000 claim is denied. The synagogues have sent formal letters to the city to deal with the issue and no responses have been received. The synagogue has been getting phone calls from all over the world because the story has been picked up nationally and internationally and many people who live elsewhere have people buried in the cemetery.

Thank you for reading this.

–Ari Hoffman

 

More on this story here (on Facebook):

July 23, 2018: Respect: One man’s fight to save what’s good about Seattle

July 8, 2018: Bikur Cholim Cemetery Association considering legal action

May 31, 2018: They used to help the homeless…

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