Seattle officials are considering alternative sites for a Ballard homeless encampment in response to neighborhood opposition, but the Market Street location they initially proposed is still on the table.
When the Seattle City Council in March unanimously approved Mayor Ed Murray’s plan for up to three new homeless encampments, dozens of homeless people and advocates responded with jubilant applause.
The mood last week at a community meeting in Ballard about a potential encampment on Market Street could not have been more different.
Many of the several hundred people at the Leif Erikson Lodge grumbled, others made angry speeches and some screamed at the Murray administration officials running the meeting, demanding to know why the mayor himself was absent.
Some Ballard residents and business owners are opposing the Market Street site and accusing officials of announcing its selection as a preferred location in June without adequate community engagement.
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“The perception is that we’re being railroaded,” said Dwayne Edwards, the owner of Stuf Home Decor, a furniture store near the site, not far from the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks.
Officials held Wednesday’s meeting in response to more than a month of Ballard backlash and recently began looking with neighborhood groups at alternative sites.
But proponents of homeless encampments are urging Murray to stand up to what they describe as “not-in-my-backyard” opposition, and the mayor isn’t taking the Market Street location off the table.
Murray spokesman Viet Shelton insisted the administration is following the outreach requirements laid out in the ordinance and will continue to do so.
“This is fear of the unknown,” said Tim Harris, executive director of the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project. “Usually when this happens, you have a church looking at hosting an encampment, and neighbors freak out. If the church stays the course, the neighbors find out the sky hasn’t fallen. Nobody’s eaten their children.”
Road to brouhaha
The road to the brouhaha began last year, when Murray created a task force to address an increase in people camping illegally by roads and under bridges. The panel recommended officials make it easier for legal tent cities to open, with oversight.
In January, the mayor proposed that Seattle site, sanction, regulate and support up to three encampments on private or city property, excepting residential zones and parks.
There have been legal encampments for many years, but not with city support. Most have been hosted by religious institutions or made to move frequently.
The council approved the ordinance, allowing the new tent cities to house up to 100 people each and stay at a site for a year, with a possible second-year extension.
The sites must be at least 25 feet from residential lots, within a half-mile of a transit stop, at least a mile from another encampment and no smaller than 5,000 square feet.
The mayor asked the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) produce a list of qualifying locations.
The DPD on June 29 named three preferred locations, including a proposed 52-person tent city on Market Street. The others were in Interbay and the Industrial District near Georgetown. It also listed four other locations as potential future sites.
Under the ordinance, an encampment may open only after an operator applies for and is granted a permit. The operator must hold a public meeting at least 14 days before applying for the permit, then form a community advisory committee.
The DPD announcement didn’t guarantee there would be a tent city on Market Street. No operator has applied for a permit there.
But officials considered the site their first choice, said Sola Plumacher, director of the Human Services Department (HSD) community-support and assistance division.
They moved to lease the property from Seattle City Light and have had the utility begin remediation work on contaminated soil there. They planned to begin community outreach e early this month, according to Plumacher.
Neighbors didn’t wait to make their voices heard. Shortly after the DPD announcement, many signed a “Don’t Tell Ballard to Shut Up” online petition calling on the council to hold public hearings. The petition had 1,492 signatures by Sunday.
The Market Street property sits between a bar and a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post. Nearby are a tobacco shop, liquor store, deli market, cafes and a salon.
Opponents say the businesses would suffer and there would be too much temptation for people with substance-abuse issues who might stay in the encampment. They argue a tent city shouldn’t be sited near the Locks, a popular tourist attraction.
“Reality doesn’t decide where customers go — perception decides, and this will impact perceptions,” said Edwards, the furniture-store owner. “If customers perceive people are going to ask them for money or maybe be dirty … they’ll shop elsewhere.”
Some opponents say an encampment would put additional pressure on a growing neighborhood already struggling to handle a large transient population.
There are townhomes and apartments above the site, other opponents note, meaning some residents would see campers from their windows and smell their fires.
Mike Stewart, executive director of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce, says an encampment on Market Street wouldn’t jibe with Ballard’s draft urban-design framework, which neighbors have been crafting with the DPD over a number of years. It prioritizes “a vibrant downtown Ballard business district” with “special attention to Market Street.”
Stewart said business owners want to help by finding a better location.
Plumacher, the HSD official, said the Market Street site makes sense because it lies along a bus route near grocery stores and is close to social services such as Ballard’s Urban Rest Stop, where homeless people can clean up during the day.
Not all neighbors oppose the site. Kathleen Weber, a pastor at Ballard’s Trinity United Methodist Church, spoke Wednesday.
“My experience with encampments hosted by faith communities is that they are often good neighbors … helping with trash cleanup, keeping the area secure and attending meetings,” she said. “People living without homes want the same things we all want.”
Wednesday’s meeting was tense. When Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim, leading the meeting because Murray was talking at a Capitol Hill synagogue about his recent trip to Israel, asked the crowd to listen patiently to people with experience living on the streets, a woman shouted, “We know they need help — just not here!”
A VFW Post representative said he heard about the Market Street site in the news, not from officials. A formerly homeless man said a tent city may have saved his life.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien, running for re-election in District 6, which includes Ballard, has criticized the site-selection process, as has his rival, Catherine Weatbrook.
O’Brien isn’t calling for officials to abandon the location, but he said the DPD should provide more detailed information about why it selected the site.
“The city has to do better on how we communicate and engage the public,” he said.
There’s no hard timeline for a decision on a Ballard encampment location, said DPD Director Diane Sugimura. Officials still want to open a tent city this year, she said.
Plumacher said officials recognize the process has been imperfect. But opposition always rears its head “when we talk about homeless services,” she added.
“We just kind of roll with it and attempt to educate and inform the best we can and then move forward,” said Plumacher. “That’s typically the way it works.”