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Longtime SODO business moving, says homeless encampments to blame

Seattle City Council members have different ideas on how to tackle the city's homeless issue. Why some businesses in the south end are concerned.
A landmark SODO company says it is moving out of the city because of the city's homeless response and a threat to public safety.  (Photo: KING)

A landmark SODO company says it is moving out of the city because of the city's homeless response and a threat to public safety.

Mark Benezra of Buffalo Industries says he will move his decades-old operation because of what he believes is the city's dismissive approach to unsanctioned encampments and enforcement. He also warns he's not alone.

"We will no longer be residing in the City of Seattle proper. It's not a good environment for us," said Benezra, whose family has owned the textile shop for four generations. He speaks proudly of Seattle and SODO and how business-friendly it has been.

It has been in the spot since the 1940s and recycles fabric and textiles for use in places like paint shops and oil fields. He employs more than 50 people at the Spokane Street site.

But Benezra says the area has become unsafe, thanks in part to the since-closed authorized encampment under the Spokane Street viaduct and increased RV encampments in SODO.

"We've been here almost 70 years, and this is about as bad as we've seen SODO - actually worst we've seen in SODO," he said. He points to used needles, human waste, and burglaries at the business. "We've found employees having problems accepting the environment they have to get through."

He stresses that he doesn't have a problem with providing services for the unsheltered, but the lack of enforcement is the problem. It's an issue that is likely to be at the crux of a debate during the Seattle City budget process. Council members, including Mike O'Brien and Kshama Sawant, have called for stopping "sweeps" of unauthorized encampments and relaxed rules for people living in RVs. O'Brien is also pitching an employee head tax to raise more money for homeless services.

Yet, the SODO Business Improvement Area and Seattle Firefighters Union are among organizations saying it is a step backward for the unsheltered population.

The BIA says crime is up 20% in SODO in the past year, and multiple businesses are questioning their future in the south end of the city because of public safety. Erin Goodman, with the BIA, says 40,000 people work in SODO each day and feels like the safety concerns aren't getting an honest look from city officials.

Kenny Stuart, Seattle Firefighters Union president, said "Firefighters are concerned for those citizens in these places, the public around these areas, and for responding firefighters. We are called to serve these folks for fires and medical emergencies regularly and it is not humane for our city to allow or support these folks remaining in these unhealthy and unsafe conditions."

Further north, in Pioneer Square, there are similar concerns.

"We do need to do something about basic fundamental rules of society," said architect Brian Runberg, who says he knows the plight of the unsheltered and is doing what he can to design more affordable housing and emergency shelters.

However, Runberg says, he's afraid to use his conference room to talk about ideas. His lifts his blinds to find tents pushed up against his window.

"They have destroyed some of the property, intimidated some of our staff," he said. "The current policy they want to stop the sweeps would really hinder us."

In fact, Runberg says he believes, encampments like the one outside his window are fronts.

"They are those choosing this lifestyle - and they're choosing to support it through criminal activity and there is big distinction between the two."

He was encouraged Wednesday by a visit from Seattle's Navigation Team, which included two Seattle police officers and a promise to move the camp by next week. The Seattle mayor's budget calls for expansion of the navigation team and its outreach services.

Sawant is scheduled to host a rally to "Stop the Sweeps" at City Hall on Thursday, from 6-8 p.m.

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