I lived near two homeless camps in recent years. The uproar in Ballard is giving them a much worse rap than they deserve.
The signs in Ballard these days suggest a community under siege. “Speak Up Ballard!” says one business marquee. “Don’t Tell Ballard to Shut Up,” says another.
From my part of town — one that has faced the same issues that have Ballard boiling — I’d like to wave a sign back at them that reads: “Ballard! It’s Not That Bad.”
What has Ballard in full roar is the city’s plan to put a temporary homeless encampment on a scrubby City Light lot on Northwest Market Street. Residents have packed two meetings, mostly in opposition, and a remarkable 1,475 have signed an online petition calling on the city to reconsider the camp.
“I want to keep Ballard safe,” reads one of the hundreds of messages on the petition. “A homeless encampment should not be three blocks from an elementary school.”
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Well, some Ballardites are still hacked off about being annexed to Seattle — and that happened more than a century ago. So nobody tells Ballard what to feel.
But as someone who has lived near two homeless camps in recent years, I do think the camps themselves are getting a bad rap.
A tent city of about 50 tents moved onto on my street in Madrona a few summers back. Then, in 2013, Nickelsville camped for a year across the street from my kids’ middle school. That camp wasn’t three blocks away a la Ballard — it was on the same block as Washington Middle School.
In both cases, nothing happened.
Yes, there were plenty of concerns. I went to a meeting at St. Therese Catholic Church before tent city moved in there and neighbors raised some of the same issues as they have in Ballard.
But the leaders of the camp explained they have strict quiet time from 9:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. They have a two-person security team 24/7. They gave us the camp cellphone number to call at any time if we had any problems.
The Nickelsville camp of about 40 people across from our 1,200-student middle school was sandwiched between a 60-unit senior-living center and a children’s playground — so it was hardly isolated in an industrial area. Yet it remained mostly invisible.
There were some complaints about the smoke from their camp fires in the winter. I got to know the camp a bit after I noticed a Seattle Public Schools yellow bus picking up kids there for school, and wrote a column about it because I was shocked kids were living in unheated shacks in such a rich city. That ended when the families with kids were moved into real apartments — where I’m happy to report they are still living today.
The camps are not pretty. But beyond that, my sense was they had almost no negative impact on the neighborhood.
That’s not to say they had no impact at all. When the tent city was on my street, for instance, a couple of homeless guys staying there started showing up at our weekly pickup-basketball games in the St. Therese church gym.
At first we went easy on them, because heck, they were homeless. But within a few minutes the guy I was guarding had blown by me in old tennis shoes for two easy layups.
He got the better of me even after I went at him full-tilt. By the end of the night I had forgotten he was homeless. I hope he forgot, too, at least for a few trips up and down the court.
Over time we got to know him a bit. He was working odd jobs and thinking of moving to Oregon for a construction job. He loved our weekly games. When I was home, sore and recuperating on the couch, I wondered about how he did it, down the street lying in a tent on a wooden pallet.
One night he didn’t show. We went over to the tent city to look for him, but he had moved on. We never heard where he ended up.
Maybe it’s not rational, but this is what I think of when I see Ballard protesting. You start out with preconceived notions, maybe some worries about crime or trouble in the neighborhood. But what might end up mattering most may be how you got your butt kicked in basketball.