Updated: Jewish cemeteries forced to spend thousands to clean up after homeless
Ari Hoffman was going to cancel his annual tradition of taking his children to a Seattle Jewish cemetery on Memorial Day and planting American flags on the graves of veterans. That’s because the homeless crisis has grown so bad, it is now unsafe to wander the cemetery.
That was before the word got out.
After speaking to the media, including the Todd Herman Show, Seattle’s Jewish community reached out with support. Now, there will be security present on Memorial Day making sure the tradition continues.
“Some of which are former Israel Defense Forces soldiers that are now coming with us to escort the children so nothing happens and they can do their mitzvah, their good deed,” Hoffman said.
Conditions around the Sephardic Cemetery and the Bikur Cholim cemetery in Seattle have grown toxic. RVs parked on nearby streets use the grounds for bathrooms — for themselves and their pets. The neighboring homeless population leaves trash, syringes, and other drug paraphernalia around the graves. At night, prostitutes and drug dealers wander the dark cemetery to do businesses.
Calls to police and city leaders have yielded no help. Media exposure on the RVs prompted them to leave for a short while, but they have returned, Hoffman says.
Hoffman is a board member of the Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath Synagogue, which oversees the cemeteries. He said they have been forced to spend $50,000 to clear areas of the grounds. The community is considering suing the city over the added costs.
Following up with Seattle
Aside from the Memorial Day issue, he has attempted to address the problem with Seattle leaders. He has received no help. Still, Hoffman tried again after news outlets covered the problems at the cemetery. He updated them on what his Jewish community was doing on its own.
“I sent an email to every single Seattle council member,” Hoffman said. “I said to them, ‘Here are the steps we are taking.’ I mentioned arming congregants. I mentioned possibly suing the city. I mentioned the media exposure … didn’t get many responses back.”
One week after reaching out to the council, he got an email from Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s office telling him the council’s proposed head tax will take care of everything.
“I was just blown away by that one,” Hoffman said. “I said ‘OK, not getting any response’ so I started calling offices.”
He called Councilmember Bruce Harrell’s office — he represents the district where the synagogue is located.
“Still haven’t heard back on a meeting time,” Hoffman said. “I called (Debora) Juarez’s office. They said ‘OK, we’ll discuss this … we can all come out and meet with you.’”
That meeting ended up being quite difficult. It was rescheduled because the city wanted its Navigation Team to come along to meet with any homeless residents. Hoffman says that the team has already been to the site. Hoffman thinks things changed after he informed Juarez’s office that there would be other people present at the meeting; that many in the community are concerned about the issue.
“And when they showed up (Tuesday, May 1, 2018), there was no council member, there were only staff members and people were pretty upset by that … they think they have more important things to do,” Hoffman said.
Something has changed
Council staff spoke with people who have family members buried at the cemetery, but Hoffman said no solutions came from the meeting. He has noticed that there has been some change to the city’s response, however.
“I think they understand the path that this is going on, that people aren’t going to take this anymore,” Hoffman said.
“We called the cops (about some tents in the area),” Hoffman said. “And interestingly enough — cops are not usually this responsive, because of whatever the council or the mayor’s office has told them about enforcing this — they were there right way. All of a sudden, these tents are gone. That has never happened in two years. So something is going on, something is happening.”