A wave of homelessness threatens to overwhelm charity workers in Ballard, while their neighbors become more and more frustrated with the city’s response.
A NOTE TO READERS: The stories published for the Seattle Day of Homelessness are a collaboration by four newsrooms — Crosscut/KCTS 9, KUOW, Seattlepi.com and The Seattle Times — to spotlight the regional homelessness crisis. The newsrooms shared data but reported stories independently. To see coverage, visit their websites, follow #seahomeless on Twitter and pick up a copy of Sunday’s Seattle Times.
Sara Bates unlocks the church doors on Fridays, so she was the first one to see Roxy Baker — and one of the last to see her alive.
Baker, a 62-year-old woman from Kent, was brushing her hair underneath the eaves of St. Luke’s Episcopal in Ballard. She had slept there for about a week; her husband was found dead on the same church property in April. The day before, the homeless woman told Bates that she had cancer.
But Bates didn’t say hello; she had a busy morning ahead. As part-time coordinator of the meals program, she expected to serve about 175 meals that morning. St. Luke’s served a record-breaking 3,845 meals in May 2018, almost double what it served in May 2016.
Two hours later, Bates heard another homeless sleeper shouting, “Call 9-1-1! Roxy’s not OK!”
Baker’s skin was purple. Bates started CPR. Paramedics came. Baker was gone.
As Seattle’s homelessness crisis continues to grow, Ballard is experiencing an influx larger than almost anywhere else in King County. The annual Point In Time count found a fourfold increase in homelessness in central Ballard in just one year, with 214 people tallied there on one night in January.
The rise is testing the traditionally liberal politics of Ballard, and the loudest voices are now talking about crime. Fear of crime in south Ballard is higher than the average in Seattle, according to a recent city survey. Property crime rose 11 percent last year, and the number of dispatched calls to 9-1-1 are up in the neighborhood, but the violent-crime rate has been steady since 2015, according to Seattle police data.
Residents complain about a slow or lax police response, and they feel the city isn’t listening to them. Facebook pages and Ballard’s Nextdoor site are flooded with photos and footage of homeless people in an effort to make noise.
Mike O’Brien, who represents Ballard on the Seattle City Council, knows the neighborhood’s patience has worn thin in the 2½ years since Seattle declared a state of emergency on homelessness.
“That’s a long time to be living in ‘Hey, it’s a little bit of a crisis. Let’s get through it,’ and the numbers continue to increase — and in some neighborhoods, like Ballard, significantly,” O’Brien said. “The length of this crisis and the lack of the city’s ability to create a comprehensive strategy to reduce the crisis is really pushing people’s buttons.”
Ballard’s patience wears thin
Harley Lever was passing Ballard Public Library, right across the street from St. Luke’s, in March when his girlfriend said, “Hey — I think that’s Mark over there.”
Lever had been looking for his friend Mark for weeks. The two were fishermen and roommates before Mark’s alcoholism drove them apart. Now, Mark was living under the Salmon Bay Bridge, and a few weeks before, he’d been stabbed five times in what he said was a fight over a cigarette.
This kind of “unchecked lawlessness” is what angers Lever, who lives near Ballard and ran for Seattle mayor in 2017 on an aggressive platform focused on homelessness.
“To me, anywhere else in the country they’d say, ‘There’s some crime going on and this needs to end,’ ” Lever said. “But that wasn’t the case.”
Lever started Safe Seattle, a Facebook page that initially focused on homelessness in Ballard, Interbay and Magnolia, in 2015. Safe Seattle has almost 6,000 likes from across the region. People on the Safe Seattle page post photos highlighting trash, needles and sometimes even human feces.
Homelessness and drug addiction is personal for Lever, affecting members of his family and his friends, like Mark. And as anger has spilled out onto Safe Seattle’s posts and comments sections, he admits that he doesn’t agree with everything said. He has banned hundreds of people for violating the page’s “rules of engagement” — some of them his friends and Ballard neighbors.
If I were to go and destroy public land in a park, I’d be prosecuted for that. If I go and park my car somewhere that’s illegal, I get a ticket for that. There can’t be two sets of laws.” - Erika Nagy
Erika Nagy, another high-profile critic of O’Brien and the city, said she prefers a smaller Facebook group — Speak Out Seattle — a nonpartisan page where she said people avoid “name-calling” and focus on data and solutions.
Speak Out Seattle has 1,300 members, and some show up to City Hall in “Speak Out Seattle” shirts. Posts on the group’s Facebook page are typically skeptical about city spending on homelessness and argue for a harder-edged enforcement strategy.
But Nagy says she and other critics of the city agree with O’Brien on many things: Treatment for addiction is better than jail. Mental-health care should be better funded on the state level. And building more affordable housing was part of Lever’s mayoral platform.
But where they disagree, Nagy says, is law enforcement of tent and vehicle camping.
“If I were to go and destroy public land in a park, I’d be prosecuted for that. If I go and park my car somewhere that’s illegal, I get a ticket for that,” she said. “There can’t be two sets of laws.”
Seattle police Capt. Sean O’Donnell, who oversees the North Precinct, acknowledged that policing illegal tent camping has gotten more “complex.”
He said his officers rely on the city’s Navigation Team, a collection of outreach workers and police, to remove camps. The Navigation Team has 20 people for a city with almost 5,000 people sleeping outside as of January.
“We are always going to respond to crime,” said O’Donnell. “We’d much rather have somebody attached to social services and receive treatment or receive … housing than we would to try and enforce our way out of the deal.”
In May, O’Brien faced a wave of anger and concern at a town hall held at Ballard’s Trinity United Methodist Church. People critical of the city packed the meeting, shouting obscenities and interrupting speakers for two hours.
Nagy said she just shut down.
“There were moments where I was like,‘What is happening in my city?’ ” Nagy said.
Afterward one of Lever’s co-founders of the Safe Seattle page took to Facebook to admonish the loud people, saying they were only a few but they “cost the effort some moral high ground.”
O’Brien was front and center at that town hall in May, and he says now that he understands the frustration with crime. O’Brien lives in Fremont, and he said his car has been broken into at least twice and his house three times. His bike was stolen two summers ago, allegedly by a squatter living in the house next to him, which O’Brien says had needles in the basement when police got in.
“It’s not acceptable what he’s doing, and putting him in jail is probably not going to cure him of his addiction — it’s treatment.
I feel like most of our neighbors are looking for ways to help, but they don’t know how to help, and they feel that our city and government are not fixing the problem with our tax dollars.” - Sara Bates
“That’s the thing that’s hard; people’s frustrations are legitimate, and they’re real,” O’Brien said. “And they expect me to fix it.”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan didn’t agree to an interview, but a spokesperson said the mayor and SPD Chief Carmen Best have been working on crime analysis, including in Ballard, and are discussing areas that need more attention.
Durkan’s staff pointed to a series of recent RV cleanups, including one in Ballard on Tuesday that resulted in nine RVs voluntarily leaving and 1,400 pounds of trash collected.
Why the increase?
Homeless people are coming to Ballard, caseworkers say, to flee tent-camp cleanups in other parts of the city and often to stay away from downtown, where many have had anxiety-inducing experiences with other homeless people.
RVs can legally park overnight in the industrial areas near Ballard’s waterfront. There’s a food bank and Urban Rest Stop in Ballard, and until earlier this year, it had a city-sanctioned tiny house village.
St. Luke’s, the church where Roxy’s body was found, is next to the Ballard Public Library and Ballard Commons Park, where tents have cropped up and have been swept again and again in the past year. The church gets emails, notes and calls about serving meals. They’re mostly anonymous.
“It’s usually, ‘We’ll shut you down,’ or ‘We’ll take legal action,’ ” said St. Luke’s priest, the Rev. Britt Olson. At least one parishioner left the church because of concern over the meals program.
But Olson understands the frustration. The church had to install sharps containers in the bathrooms after unclogging a toilet and finding it stuffed with used needles. Staffers have had to break up fights and ban some homeless people from the property, administer CPR to people passed out, and pick up lots of trash, including human waste, Olson said.
“We’ve stepped up what we’re doing so much, and just keep responding. I don’t know how we’re doing that, to be honest,” Olson said. “But everyone else needs to step up too.”
Some in the Ballard community are deciding to do more. Ballard Alliance, a neighborhood chamber of commerce, has paid for a caseworker with the REACH program who walks the neighborhood every day trying to get people into housing.
From February to May, the caseworker, Paige Killinger, got 42 people into shelter, handed out Narcan kits, helped two people get jobs in Ballard, and helped one woman — known as “Mama Jan,” who’s been homeless in Ballard for 30 years — get into housing in Ballard.
Businesses and some neighbors in Ballard have Killinger’s phone number. They can call her when they have an issue with someone. And for a lot of people, the biggest issue is not having a number to call, said Mike Stewart, executive director of the Ballard Alliance.
Stewart and others believe that no matter the neighborhood anger, most Ballard people want to help.
Sara Bates has seen a lot of nastiness firsthand. When she was standing over Roxy Baker’s body, watching paramedics do chest compressions, a man she says was her neighbor walked up and took pictures of Baker’s body.
Bates, angry and afraid she would see these photos later on Ballard’s Nextdoor or Safe Seattle pages, asked him to stop.
When another person pulled up and began taking video on their phone, police moved their cars to shield Baker’s body, according to Bates.
Bates was relieved that she never saw the photos or video on social media. And despite that experience, she still thinks most Ballard residents are sensitive and compassionate.
“I feel like most of our neighbors are looking for ways to help,” Bates said, “but they don’t know how to help, and they feel that our city and government are not fixing the problem with our tax dollars.”
An earlier version of this story said Erika Nagy had stopped looking at the Safe Seattle page on Facebook. Nagy clarified that she still does read Safe Seattle.
An earlier version of this story misstated how long Roxy Baker slept at St. Luke’s. Baker had been sleeping on St. Luke’s property for about a week before she died.
Staff reporter Vernal Coleman contributed to this article.