By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Much like the backstage crew of a great performance, the International District Emergency Center (IDEC) works behind the scenes of the district at night by helping citizens in need, managing safety at events, and resolving conflicts.
But with recent proposed budget cuts from the City of Seattle, the emergency center is facing a crisis of its own with the possibility of a serious cut in their funding.
“These budget cuts would impact our capacity and ability to be on the streets,” said Donnie Chin, co-founder of the IDEC.
“We’re unlike other emergency services who wait for calls to come in about problems. We go out looking for things to take care of, and few services do this.”
After constant exposure to the corruption and poverty of the International District, Chin and his friends, who grew up in the area, started the IDEC in 1968 in response to the district’s lack of human services at the time.
To prepare themselves, volunteers learned first aid and CPR skills, and they spoke with combat veterans who advised them on how to handle emergency situations. The organization expanded as more local youth became concerned with the safety of their neighborhood.
“Forty-plus years later, the IDEC still has a ‘legendary’ reputation for the work it does,” said Dean Wong, a co-founder and volunteer. Wong is currently a facilities assistant at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service and has known Chin since childhood. “Volunteers that came through the organization as children still continue to work with us as adults,” said Wong.
Donning tan uniforms, IDEC volunteers routinely patrol the streets of the International District looking for people in need of healthcare and shelter. They also help the police or fire fighters who respond to emergency situations.
“We try to send the community into helping with city services as soon as emergencies are happening,” said Chin about the IDEC’s fast responses.
“It gives [people in need] assurance, and we’re taking care of the emergency needs of the community.”
Proposed budget cuts will impact operations.
In the past, the IDEC has relied on private donations and grants to fund their services. But the organization often ran out of food and medical supplies.
“All the stuff that we use on calls, we have to buy,” said Chin. “We don’t send a bill to the people we treat — we just sub the cost. Most [of these] people live in poverty, so what would you even bill them for?”
In 1988, the City of Seattle started to provide additional funding to the IDEC. The IDEC used that money to expand their services by providing classes for the public.
But Mayor Mike McGinn’s proposed budget for 2011-2012 would cut more than $300,000 in funds earmarked for the IDEC and other human service organizations. The City of Seattle currently provides $18,220 in funds to the IDEC, making up 40–45% of their yearly budget.
Without full funding, the agency will have to cut its supplemental services whereby they train patrols, host summer youth programs, and teach classes in the community that promote self-reliance.
“We’re trying to get people to not need us by teaching them preventative tactics in classes,” said Chin.
Preventative work includes teaching people how to respond to small concerns on their own or how to treat light illnesses. “A good day for us is not getting any calls,” he said.
Chin also believes that loss of these IDEC services will cost the city more in the long run.
“It’s going to cost them more in the emergency room compared to the cost of our preventative classes,” said Chin.
“These people have to go somewhere when they’re in trouble, so if you cut one organization, people will end up going to another city service. It’s just burdening other people with our jobs.”
What can the public do?
With a reputation that spans decades, the IDEC has established a formidable though quiet presence in the International District.
Loss of the IDEC’s many services will also impact the growth of the organization because its foundation revolves around educating youth on the responsibility and value of serving the community.
“Seeing kids grow up in the organization is very rewarding,” said Wong about his most fond memories of the IDEC. “There is a family-like atmosphere among the core IDEC volunteers, and we all share this mission of serving the community.”
Since many of the volunteers have also grown up in the area, Chin notes that they bond over their need to alleviate the plight of those around them.
Meagan Wong is a volunteer with deep-rooted ties to the IDEC. “Growing up, I would go to the IDEC every day after school. There was a lot of negative street activity in the International District. I remember seeing people dealing drugs in the parks while I was walking home from school, or fighting in the alleyways,” Wong recalled. “But the IDEC provided a safe place for me to go to every day, in a neighborhood that would’ve otherwise been detrimental to a kid’s childhood.”
Chin encourages people who are familiar with the IDEC’s efforts to call the mayor’s office and the city council to restore funds for the IDEC and other affected human service programs.
“It’s heartbreaking to see all this corruption and poverty all the time,” Chin said. “We just wanted to do something then, and we still want to do something now.” ♦
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.