An Inside Look Into Ballard’s Homeless Population
By Christian Caple
It’s February in Seattle, but the sun is shining and the sky is blue, and so Roy Schneider, who owns an auto repair shop called Exhaust Specialties in Ballard, is taking a break and relaxing outside, talking to a police officer parked in his cruiser. There’s something that’s eating at him, though, which is possibly why he was talking to that officer in the first place. “You should see what goes on here at night,” Schneider says of his business on the corner of 15th Ave. NE and Leary Way. “You’d have to bring a crew down here to watch this. They come out of the woodworks, selling drugs and all that.”
‘They’ are the area’s homeless, many of whom sleep under the bridges and in campers and cars near Schneider’s auto shop.
It’s stories like these–and there are many, Schneider says–that have helped spur changes to Ballard laws, most notably the approval and implementation in June of an exclusion zone in Ballard’s three parks: Bergen Place, Marvin’s Garden and Ballard Commons Park, all within walking distance from each other.
The law is simple, and easy enough to enforce: you break the law in one park—the focus is on illicit drug use and sales–you’re banned from all three. According to a June 4 story posted on MyBallard, exclusions last a week for a first offense, 90 days for a second and a full year for a third. It’s designed to cut down on drug dealing and inappropriate sexual behavior after dark, something that had been prevalent and worrisome to local residents and business owners.
“There was some concern in the com about just an increased illegal negative behavior in the three parks close to downtown Ballard or in downtown Ballard,” said Brock Milliern, the security supervisor for Seattle Parks and Recreation.
But that intent may be indirectly harming the area’s homeless community, many of whom sleep in the parks without shooting up or selling drugs. For example, take Wade, a homeless man who identified himself only by his first name, who was speaking with a friend one day when a police officer approached him.
“They said they had a suspicion of drug activity in the park, and said I couldn’t go in the park,” he said.
Wade said the police made him sign a paper that said he was banned from Ballard parks for a year–even though he hadn’t been cited before–simply because he looked homeless, and they suspected that he may have been involved in the apparent drug activity.
“I hadn’t even set foot in the park that day,” Wade said.
That’s not the worst of it, he says. Two weeks later, Wade awoke after sleeping in the bushes, then trekked into Ballard Commons Park (the skate park), because that’s the only place he can get clean water for his water jug.
But on his way out, he ran into the same police officer who forced him to sign the exclusion agreement two weeks prior.
“You’re not supposed to be in the parks,” the cop told him.
The result was two days in jail.
“All I was doing was getting water,” Wade said. “It’s terrible. There are people who drink in the park all day and get away with it. It’s something else.” Milliern said the exclusion zone wasn’t meant to specifically single out the homeless community, and that while many sleep in the parks, that isn’t the main focus of the policy.
“It is something you could be written an exclusion for,” Milliern said. “I don’t remember that being one of the issues. People were concerned about it, but that’s not particularly what it was supposed to stop.
“In the drug dealing, they (the homeless) probably weren’t a big problem. They were a bigger problem in the alcohol consumption and public intoxication aspect.”
An Aug. 7 story on MyBallard.com quotes Seattle Parks and Recreation Superintendent Tim Gallagher as saying that he thinks the exclusion laws are really working, and according to the story, police had issued 13 park exclusions, along with 36 citations for drinking in the park.
The Seattle Police Department declined comment for this story.
There are others on the side of the homeless who say the drug use in the parks isn’t a Ballard homeless issue, but a case of drug users simply being kicked down the road.
Sue Allegra, the administrative manager for the Ballard Chamber of Commerce, said that the city of Seattle’s cleanup of Belltown 18 months ago–which was intended to cut down on sex and drug use, specifically in the alley ways–moved that same activity to the parks in Ballard.
“Ballard does not have a problem with local homeless,” Allegra said. “It’s the drug dealers and aggressive panhandlers from the last push.”
By Ryan McNamee and Elena Hansen
Schneider pulls his truck out every morning and parks it on the curb outside his auto shop.
Otherwise, he says, the homeless will park their campers there.
“The businesses have no place to park their cars, or their employees, because these campers are all over the place,” Schneider said. “People are calling in every day to move these things out of here.”
The city’s tried to keep them moving, posting signs that read “No parking. 2-5 a.m.”
But both sides are left unsatisfied. Schneider and others say it still doesn’t solve the problem of businesses and their employees not having places to park.
And the area homeless say all it does is compound the problem, because when the city impounds illegally parked vehicles, they’re digging the owner an even deeper financial hole by forcing them to pay money to get their vehicle back.“You have to keep your vehicle moving around,” said James Wlos, an area homeless man. “You don’t have money for gas, they impound your vehicle. What that does, if that doesn’t make a person already in debt to begin with, a person becomes further in debt when the vehicle only sells for $100 .”
These sentiments of dissatisfaction seem to indicate that the law isn’t serving its purpose. Just like with the park exclusion laws, the parking enforcement rules can be seen as a way of continuing to move the problem elsewhere.
The drug users get kicked out of Belltown and head into Ballard. The campers living on Ballard streets either get impounded, or have to keep moving so they don’t.
But there are signs elsewhere that suggest there’s a more sustainable solution for Ballard’s dilemma.
A BETTER WAY
Nancy Kapp knows what it’s like to live on the streets.
Kapp was a victim of domestic violence, which led to her and her 4-year-old daughter being homeless for four years in Santa Barbara, Calif.
She’s part of the solution now, though. Kapp is the coordinator of the Safe Parking Program for an organization called New Beginnings in Santa Barbara, a program established some seven years ago that provides parking spaces in empty lots for homeless car-sleepers to spend the night.
It’s all self-contained, Kapp says, and no alcohol, drugs or loud music is allowed in the lots while people are parked. Some of them have jobs they go to during the day. Some park on the beach for free when they have to leave in the morning. Some are former middle-class homeowners, victims of the housing crisis in notoriously rich area.
But all of them–150 in total, Kapp says, in 23 different lots–get the peace of mind that comes from not having to worry about having their car towed or being arrested for sleeping in their vehicle.
“You’ve got to know how to play the game,” Kapp said. “It’s a game. It’s not easy. It’s hard. People don’t realize being homeless, how hard that is in itself, let alone trying to find where you’re going to park your car, not being hassled by the cops. It’s a lot to have on your shoulders.”
New Beginnings is just trying to ease the load. Kapp said they mostly work with church parking lots, but that some businesses are also starting to come around. She said they aren’t given the entire lot, but usually are allotted about five or seven spots.
“People are poor,” Kapp said. “It’s not their fault a lot of times. The government’s not helping these people. Look what’s happening. That’s why communities have got to start standing up for themselves. The government’s not going to save us. We are going to save ourselves by helping each other.”
There’s at least been movement on a similar plan in Seattle. The Ballard Homes For All Coalition has proposed a small-scale car camp to support the campers that line Ballard’s streets, aiming to partner with a local church to allow six or so campers to park in their lot at night and provide them with sanitary amenities.
But they’ve hit some snags along the way. Jean Darsie, who is coordinating the effort, said they’ve received approval for funding from the state–she estimates the cost of running such an operation to be $10,000 per year–but that it took a while to find a fiscal agent, which is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization that enters into an agreement to administer state funds to the program.
Darsie said the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness agreed to be their fiscal agent, but another obstacle remained: the state Senate had proposed a 30 percent cut to the housing trust fund, which had Darsie nervous. But an amendment to that proposal by Sen. Karen Frasier (D-22) restored any money that would have been lost.
Darsie was optimistic that if the money allotted for housing projects came through, a car camp could be a real possibility.
“The funding is for one year, and we’re already into that,” Darsie said. “It expires at the end of this year, or the beginning of next year’s session. The project was designed only to run for a year.”
Santa Barbara gives hope that plans like these can work.
“It’s not the solution, but it’s a solution, and it really does help people,” Kapp said. “It gives them 12 hours where they don’t have to move their car, and they can plan or reason and get their stuff together.”
Twelve hours that the homeless in Ballard could desperately use.
“There’s no correcting it,” Schneider said. “It’s got to correct itself. People need to open up their minds and say, ‘No more.’”
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