There are the used syringes, the garbage and the spot — right against the back door — where someone relieved themselves in a pretty big way. It took a strong hose to wash most of it off.
But it’s the graffiti scrawled across the southern brick wall of the Cancer Pathways building that has executive director Anna Gottlieb at the end of her rope. No sooner do staff members of the Capitol Hill nonprofit paint over the lines and loops that cover the East Union Street side of the building, they appear again.
And not long after that comes a notice from the city of Seattle: Clean it up in 10 days, or you’ll be fined $100 a day.
“I am at my breaking point here,” Gottlieb told me the other day, as we stood outside the building, formerly known as Gilda’s Club, where people and families fighting cancer come for support and community.
“Every time it happens, we cover it up and it comes back,” Gottlieb said of the tagging. “It’s ridiculous.”
So is the fact that adjacent, official property — a U.S. Postal Service mailbox, and a Metro bus stop — are covered with scrawl and stickers, and have been for months. I wonder if the city’s sending them letters.
Gottlieb estimates she has spent about $2,000 in the past year to buy paint, rollers and ladders to clean up the graffiti. That doesn’t include the time it takes staffers to paint over the mess, and the danger they face, climbing a ladder on a busy city street to reach tags that stretch nearly 10 feet high.
And they’re doing this, along with serving more than 100,000 people dealing with cancer every year. Patients and families go there to attend support groups and exercise classes. Young people go there to meet others like them, and write. The nonprofit has five summer camps for kids with cancer, and those affected by a parent’s illness.
Cancer Pathways has appealed to the city for help numerous times, but continues to receive notices citing the city’s Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance, which requires property owners to remove graffiti found on their property within 10 days. (If it is gang- or hate-related, it must be removed within 48 hours.)
“What are we supposed to do?” Gottlieb asked me. “This is not what we are here for. We try everything, but nobody (cares). Certainly not the city.”
Man, have I been hearing that a lot. Yes, we are in the throes of a homelessness crisis, but we’re also in a carelessness crisis at Seattle City Hall. People feel forgotten and ignored — except when the city wants them to pay a fine, a tax, or when an incumbent wants our vote.
The other week, a clip of a man addressing the Seattle City Council went viral for capturing the anger, frustration and disbelief that so many of us feel with city officials. The man — later identified as Richard Schwartz — stood before the council and asked that they give him (and not their phones) his attention. The only one who paid him any attention was Councilmember Debora Juarez, but only to remind him that his time was running out.
“It’s real discouraging to come up here and see all the heads down,” Schwartz said. “It’s like …”
Juarez cut in: ” … You’re on a two-minute time here, so let’s go.”
The video spoke to a lot of taxpayers who feel like they’re screaming into the wind when it comes to getting City Hall to pay attention.
Which brings us back to the graffiti and garbage at the corner of East Union and Broadway.
In an email, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) spokeswoman Sabrina Register told me that the city’s graffiti-removal program removed more than 297,353 square feet of graffiti from public property. That’s the equivalent of five football fields, she said, and complaints were addressed in 10 days or less.
When property owners are notified of a graffiti violation, they also get information about how to apply for a waiver to receive volunteer help, as well as free paint and supplies.
Idris Beauregard, manager of SPU’s graffiti and illegal dumping division, told me that Cancer Pathways is on the waiver list, and that the city has “never imposed a fine or penalty” on the nonprofit.
“So why send the threatening letters?” Gottlieb asked.
They got one last December and another two weeks later. A third notice was hand delivered by two city employees, who declined Cancer Pathways’ executive coordinator Sophie Rice-Sauer’s invitation to come in and talk about the problem.
After they left, she bought some supplies and spent an afternoon covering the graffiti herself.
“We do it all ourselves,” Gottlieb told me. “But it’s not what we raise money for. We raise money for our programs and people with cancer.”