Last week’s overpacked meeting at the Leif Erikson Lodge in Ballard was supposed to be a more subdued, city-moderated followup to the raucous outdoor rally held by neighborhood residents opposed to a a temporary homeless encampment earlier this month, but the several hundred people who showed up to oppose dignity for homeless people in their neighborhood weren’t interested in civility.
After changing the law to allow temporary encampments on city-owned commercial and industrial land back in 2014 and narrowing down the number of potential sites to seven, then three, the city announced its preferred location in June: A vacant lot on Market Street near the Ballard Locks.
Neighborhood reaction has been loud, shrill, and largely one-note: We don’t oppose homeless people, we just don’t want them here. (The guy in the photo above was especially committed to shouting down the few homeless advocates who managed to speak.) The arguments against the encampment include some variants too obvious to call nuance: If you really cared about the homeless, you’d build them all places to live; homeless people shouldn’t be around bars and liquor stores because they’ll get drunk and scare away the tourists (the preferred location is within one block of a liquor store, a convenience store, and a bar), and homeless people bring crime, filth, and disorder and use park Port-A-Potties that are supposed to be, as one speaker put it tearfully, “for us.”
The evening kicked off with a presentation and introductory remarks by Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim, Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland, and Facing Homelessness founder Rex Hohlbein, an architect who talked about his personal experience interacting with and discovering passion for the homeless. Audience members shouted Hohlbein down as he attempted to tell his story, yelling “there are people who want to speak!” and “we were limited to 90 seconds; why not this guy?”
Many of those who spoke delivered catchall commentaries like this one, from a Magnolia homeowner named Cindy Pierce:
I’m a Seattle taxpayer and I’m wondering where the logic has gone in city government. There is no logic. … What we’ll see out here is tarps lining the streets of Ballard. We have a city full of people with some issues, and right next to the issues will be a fully stocked liquor store, a wonderful bar for them to go to, and a wonderful quick store stocked with fortified beer.
[We have] a city deciding that we need a tent city as soon as possible in a toxic dump that needs to be dug out at the end of a peak growing season and next to one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city.
So my question is, what does the city government have against Ballard? Who is building their resume on this?
If you build it, they will come. You say there are more homeless people than ever, that night counts have gone up drastically in the last year, and you don’t know why. I believe our mayor Murray needs to have a come to Jesus meeting with the former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, and have a conversation about how to clean this city up and not attract people like these. How many jobs do the tent city people have?
Another speaker, a mom who said she and her daughter were afraid to go to a nearby park because of all the “transients” who engage in “blatant use” of a Port-a-Potty in the park and exhibit “blatant intoxication,” suggested that city officials “go over there and look at reality” to understand why she is “fearful” for her family.
Other speakers’ comments that mixed naked concern trolling–one woman, Caroline Cooper, lamented, with a straight face, that the city had cut down a tree on the encampment site that used to be “the one remaining shade tree that homeless people might want to sit under on a sunny day” –with outrage that anyone would dare label opponents, who were literally shouting, “Not in my backyard,” as NIMBYs.
Eli Fisher, a “proud Ballard resident” who came from “working class folks,” was outraged that “the city was almost labeling us as NIMBY people,” and concluded, “Shame on the city!” to uproarious applause. Another speaker, from the VFW hall adjacent to the proposed encampment, said he was “a homeowner, I live in a nice place. That does not make me a bad guy”–a rather defensive response to a charge nobody was making.
Meanwhile, Habitude salon owner Inez Gray, who was in Williamsburg learning “about how democracy works” when she heard the news, choked back tears as she testified about the threat the temporary encampment posed to her business–which, she was quick to note, she had built from nothing more than her own hard work and determination. Oh, and a line of credit on her house.
“I think we all agree that what makes Ballard cool is that we have so many small businesses,” Gray said. “Me and some of my peers took a chance to move down on Market Street to West Ballard. We left the core and moved down. We mortgaged our homes to do it. We’re not getting loans. We are putting our home equity on the line. I have 4,000 women come in every month. There are 100 girls working for me. … I put a lot of effort into creating this community. I don’t want a voice. I want a say.”
No one, including the few (mostly homeless, formerly homeless, or homeless advocates) who spoke in favor of the encampment, called the opposition “classist”–that, along with “racist,” is the third rail of Seattle’s white progressive politics–but whatever possible conclusion is there when a group of mostly upper-middle-class, mostly white, mostly homeowning residents gang up on a group of disenfranchised people sleeping on park benches or in their cars and say that they, as a class, are shiftless alcoholics and drug addicts (as if addiction was a choice) who contribute nothing to society and instigate crime and the loss of property values?
How else can we describe parents who say they don’t want their children exposed to a less-fortunate class of people, whose basic humanity is suspect because they haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle-class existence so many of those wealthy homeowners received as their birthright? And what are we supposed to make of people who literally say they can’t be anti-homeless because they once took an individual homeless person into their home, just like your racist friend who says he can’t be racist because he gets along just great with the black people who serve him?
Let’s not end on a bummer, though. Instead, let’s give the last word to a Trinity United Methodist Church parishioner named Todd, who talked, over jeers from the crowd, about the crime problem in his North Ballard neighborhood.
“Three times in last few months we’ve had a lot of random problems with property crimes. We tried to show a lot of compassion.
“I don’t think we’re going to get to a point in this conversation that we’re going to satisfy everybody. I don’t think we’re going to come up with a location that’s far enough from resources, far enough from children, far enough from liquor stores, far enough from transportation, far enough from everything to do that.
“I would rather have a tent city in the park across the street from my house than not –sir, I appreciate how loudly all night you have applauded everyone that is against this–and I would offer up the park across the street from my house for consideration for a tent city. And I ask you to consider why that might be.
“It’s because I feel safe.”