None Dare Call it Classism

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Last week’s overpacked meeting at the Leif Erikson Lodge in Ballard was supposed to be a more subdued, city-moderated followup to the raucous outdoor rally held by neighborhood residents opposed to a a temporary homeless encampment earlier this month, but the several hundred people who showed up to oppose dignity for homeless people in their neighborhood weren’t interested in civility.

After changing the law to allow temporary encampments on city-owned commercial and industrial land back in 2014 and narrowing down the number of potential sites to seven, then three, the city announced its preferred location in June:  A vacant lot on Market Street near the Ballard Locks.

Neighborhood reaction has been loud, shrill, and largely one-note: We don’t oppose homeless people, we just don’t want them here. (The guy in the photo above was especially committed to shouting down the few homeless advocates who managed to speak.) The arguments against the encampment include some variants too obvious to call nuance: If you really cared about the homeless, you’d build them all places to live; homeless people shouldn’t be around bars and liquor stores because they’ll get drunk and scare away the tourists (the preferred location is within one block of a liquor store, a convenience store, and a bar), and homeless people bring crime, filth, and disorder and use park Port-A-Potties that are supposed to be, as one speaker put it tearfully, “for us.”

The evening kicked off with a presentation and introductory remarks by Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim, Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland, and Facing Homelessness founder Rex Hohlbein, an architect who talked about his personal experience interacting with and discovering passion for the homeless. Audience members shouted Hohlbein down as he attempted to tell his story, yelling “there are people who want to speak!” and “we were limited to 90 seconds; why not this guy?”

Many of those who spoke delivered catchall commentaries like this one, from a Magnolia homeowner named Cindy Pierce:

I’m a Seattle taxpayer and I’m wondering where the logic has gone in city government. There is no logic. …  What we’ll see out here is tarps lining the streets of Ballard. We have a city full of people with some issues, and right next to the issues will be a fully stocked liquor store, a wonderful bar for them to go to, and a wonderful quick store stocked with fortified beer.

[We have] a city deciding that we need a tent city as soon as possible in a toxic dump that needs to be dug out at the end of a peak growing season and next to one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city.

So my question is, what does the city government have against Ballard? Who is building their resume on this?

If you build it, they will come. You say there are more homeless people than ever, that night counts have gone up drastically in the last year, and you don’t know why. I believe our mayor Murray needs to have a come to Jesus meeting with the former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, and have a conversation about how to clean this city up and not attract people like these. How many jobs do the tent city people have?

Another speaker, a mom who said she and her daughter were afraid to go to a nearby park because of all the “transients” who engage in “blatant use” of a Port-a-Potty in the park and exhibit “blatant intoxication,” suggested that city officials “go over there and look at reality” to understand why she is “fearful” for her family.

Other speakers’ comments that mixed naked concern trolling–one woman, Caroline Cooper, lamented, with a straight face, that the city had cut down a tree on the encampment site that used to be  “the one remaining shade tree that homeless people might want to sit under on a sunny day” –with outrage that anyone would dare label opponents, who were literally shouting, “Not in my backyard,” as NIMBYs.

Eli Fisher, a “proud Ballard resident” who came from “working class folks,” was outraged that “the city was almost labeling us as NIMBY people,” and concluded, “Shame on the city!” to uproarious applause. Another speaker, from the VFW hall adjacent to the proposed encampment, said he was “a homeowner, I live in a nice place. That does not make me a bad guy”–a rather defensive response to a charge nobody was making.

Meanwhile, Habitude salon owner Inez Gray, who was in Williamsburg learning “about how democracy works” when she heard the news, choked back tears as she testified about the threat the temporary encampment posed to her business–which, she was quick to note, she had built from nothing more than her own hard work and determination. Oh, and a line of credit on her house.

“I think we all agree that what makes Ballard cool is that we have so many small businesses,” Gray said. “Me and some of my peers took a chance to move down on Market Street to West Ballard. We left the core and moved down. We mortgaged our homes to do it. We’re not getting loans. We are putting our home equity on the line. I have 4,000 women come in every month. There are 100 girls working for me. … I put a lot of effort into creating this community. I don’t want a voice. I want a say.”


No one, including the few (mostly homeless, formerly homeless, or homeless advocates) who spoke in favor of the encampment, called the opposition “classist”–that, along with “racist,” is the third rail of Seattle’s white progressive politics–but whatever possible conclusion is there when a group of mostly upper-middle-class, mostly white, mostly homeowning residents gang up on a group of disenfranchised people sleeping on park benches or in their cars and say that they, as a class, are shiftless alcoholics and drug addicts (as if addiction was a choice) who contribute nothing to society and instigate crime and the loss of property values?

How else can we describe parents who say they don’t want their children exposed to a less-fortunate class of people, whose basic humanity is suspect because they haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle-class existence so many of those wealthy homeowners received as their birthright? And what are we supposed to make of people who literally say they can’t be anti-homeless because they once took an individual homeless person into their home, just like your racist friend who says he can’t be racist because he gets along just great with the black people who serve him?

Let’s not end on a bummer, though. Instead, let’s give the last word to a Trinity United Methodist Church parishioner named Todd, who talked, over jeers from the crowd, about the crime problem in his North Ballard neighborhood.

“Three times in last few months we’ve had a lot of random problems with property crimes. We tried to show a lot of compassion.

“I don’t think we’re going to get to a point in this conversation that we’re going to satisfy everybody. I don’t think we’re going to come up with a location that’s far enough from resources, far enough from children, far enough from liquor stores, far enough from transportation, far enough from everything to do that.

“I would rather have a tent city in the park across the street from my house than not –sir, I appreciate how loudly all night you have applauded everyone that is against this–and I would offer up the park across the street from my house for consideration for a tent city. And I ask you to consider why that might be.

“It’s because I feel safe.”

35 thoughts on “None Dare Call it Classism”

  1. Provide mental/medical services to the ill and housing for those who cannot or will not work. Provide gainful employment for those otherwise abled…..or STFU!!!!

  2. Now that this is happening, it’s time for Ballard to quit complaining, show some class, and love their homeless. These are our homeless now, let’s take care of them. Let’s all demonstrate our humanity and charity, and embrace our new neighbours with warmth. Let’s make it a point of pride to treat our homeless better than anywhere else in the city. Imagine a line of neighbours on Christmas Eve bringing gifts and hot meals, and a free lemonade stand manned by local kids on hot summer days. Imagine a community that embraces their less fortunate. This could be us! Come on, let’s do it!

    1. Except that these ‘people’ aren’t really Christians, but CINO’s (Christians In Name Only) who most likely believe in a prosperity gospel and who belong to those evangelical ‘churches’ that spew out said gospel every Sunday.

  3. The author of this piece, Erica Barnett, is paid by NARAL to be their communication director. NARAL actively supported (by email) O’Brien in the district 6 primary. Catherine Weatbrook his (female) opponent while sharing all the same ideals did not get even mention. NARAL chose not to be neutral. This is feel to me like just a political hack job- tis the season.

    1. As a staffer, I have no say in which candidates we endorse, which is a decision made by the NARAL board. I have been covering Seattle politics for nearly 15 years, and O’Brien since 2009, and have had many critical things to say about his political views, such as some of his views on changes to single-family neighborhoods, as you’ll know if you’ve read my work.

  4. Easy enough to dismiss people for the sake of self-justification. But that many people voluntarily turning out on a summer evening is undeniable evidence a problem exists. Perhaps the vagrant encampment is more a symptom of the larger problem? I might suggest Seattle — liberal, conservative and mainstream — is recognizing the our supposed “homeless solutions” are failing everyone but the NGOs. Other possible larger problems? Or should we just haughtily dismiss our neighbors as shamefully selfish NIMBYs?

    1. But that many people voluntarily turning out on a summer evening is undeniable evidence a problem exists.

      No, it isn’t. What an odd thing to believe.

    2. The “larger problem” is that we don’t have enough low-income housing. And yeah, people shouting their disgust with homeless people I think would definitely qualify as shamefully selfish NIMBYs.

      1. Why should otherwise abled people be forced into low income situations anyways?

  5. How do you “blatantly” use a port-a-potty?

    Or, how do you use one non-blatantly?

    I work in construction so I’ve used a few port-a-potties in my life. I am confused about what is expected.

    1. That part of the article is misleading. The person was saying that there were drug users “blatantly” using drugs in this particular potty and leaving used needles behind. Whether that statement is true or not is another matter, but it is telling that this blog blatantly misrepresented what the person said.

      Its also worth pointing out that this meeting was called by the city to specifically talk about the process of site selection and why this site was chosen (over more than 100 other possible locations). The city did not do that, they bought out homeless advocates and basically said “We should help the homeless” and said nothing about the process. Everyone that got up to speak AGAINST THE LOCATION said ‘we want to help the homeless, but this location is not the right place, please help us to understand why it was chosen’ while everyone that came up to speak FOR THE LOCATION did not do so, they only said that homelessness is terrible and we should all help the homeless.

      There’s a reason Ballard is getting 2 encampments, and why the Mayor has left Mike O’Brien out to dry to be the face of the issue: if O’Brien looses this election than he can’t run against the Mayor in two years. Its blatant politics, which I’ve come to find out is par for the course in this city.

      1. Legalize drugs and punish them for leaving their garbage around or otherwise being disorderly if they are only suffering from simple substance use disorder. If they have mental illness beyond substance use disorder, they need to be installed into care if they cannot maintain reasonable conduct standards. A lot of these conduct problems are abuse cycles that are two sided..Yes, those pitifully disrespectful drug addicts are being abused by the system which results in resentment and lack of care for reasonable conduct..

  6. my old church went through this same battle with neighbors when it proposed housing/feeding the homeless nightly. Angry neighbors moved away, and it was suspected that others even vandalized property themselves to pin on the unwelcome downtrodden.
    That was 15 years ago.
    The crime predicted never materialized. property values still rose right along with the bubble, popped like everywhere else, and are back up towards insane. and many hundreds of homeless received support they needed to become un-homeless. Pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, which is an action not solely reserved for the middle class.
    As far as I know, the program is still going today.
    If Ballard residents are so mad about being painted with the same NIMBY colored brush, they should try not doing the same to the ‘drunken, unwashed, jobless and dangerous’ homeless.
    Either work to improve the community from the bottom up or get the f out to the burbs where you can completely ignore the bigger problems.

    1. Either work to improve the community from the bottom up or get the f out to the burbs where you can completely ignore the bigger problems.

      There’s just one problem; like many North American cities, Seattle probably has inner and outer suburbs that are poverty-stricken already. Seems that voting in neocon state and municipal governments/politicians is why.

  7. The site is fine for a homeless camp, but am I the only one that doesn’t like the fact that all of the businesses in the area found out about this in the news and not from the mayor’s office? Why did no one in they mayor’s office or city council engage these businesses? Just because you fear you won’t like the response doesn’t mean you should exclude them from the process. Seems like the city likes to operate these days from an ivory tower and dictate what they are going to do vs. engage anyone. it is a “Let me tell you what is going to happen, and you can only comment after the decision is made” type mentality on this, as well as other issues like zoning. I understand that pure open door democracy is a hurdle to progress at times, but they did not have to include everyone, just ensure they were communicating to everyone directly impacted. I’m pretty sure this was by design, that way it can be easy to lambaste the predictable negative response of those caught off guard. Plus, this makes it even easier for the Stranger to write their anti NIMBY headline and reinforce the Stranger’s predictable position that all businesses are greedy 1% capitalists looking to overwhelm everyone else with their arrogance, when it seems the arrogance is all locked up in city hall.

    In the future I’d like to see a little more collaboration and communication from the city. But I think I have to wait for the next mayoral election for that to happen.

    1. The site is fine for a homeless camp, but am I the only one that doesn’t like the fact that all of the businesses in the area found out about this in the news and not from the mayor’s office?

      I’m at a loss as to why I should be troubled by this. It’s not like their relative died or something. Contra the hysteria Ballard has whipped itself into, here’s no rational reason, based on past experiences, to expect the camp will have a significant impact on their businesses such that there’s any sort of planning they could or should be doing to prepare. And from what I gather it’s not like the camp opens next week. Insofar as there is something they need to do to prepare, they still have time.

    2. This is a representative democracy, not a mobocracy. Do you really think that the people in Ballard shouting insults would have calmed down if they’d been ASKED if they wanted an encampment? That’s just an excuse for saying “We don’t want it and we’re going to scream until you say you won’t do it.”

  8. Thank you for this article. As a Ballard resident, I’ve been saddened by the community reaction to the proposed tent encampments. Someone started a petition to support them – I’d encourage everyone that supports the mayor’s plan to sign on. If enough people sign, it could be a good counterweight to the “Don’t Tell Ballard to Shut Up” petition that circulated earlier.

  9. Seattle use to have a culture of encouraging neighborhood stakeholders and “indwellers”..people with pride and ownership of their little patch of heaven…now with a mayor straight from the depths of a state government that seems to enjoy shoving things down Seattle’s throat (shall we call it a Bertha down a money pit)….local control is being erased. All backed by legions of developers and related types who make money breaking apart neighborhoods and amassing wealth tearng them down and then building new, disjointed and never to ever enjoy local identity real estate (can’t call the beige box dwellers a neighborhood)…why are you surprised at this reaction? Who said Seattle is suppose to house the world? If I see one more creepy as the old-new Colonel Sanders planted in a community meeting sweetly chime “but we have to have somewhere for everyone to live,” And am I the only who is wondering why suddenly Seattle has an epidemic of what seems to be random shootings of people walking dogs and civic volunteers..a close up back ground of…crime.., density, impossible traffic…over wrought government control of our lives and our garbage?! This place doesn’t seem to be run for the benefit of the residents, but instead for money grinding special interests who make their cash and scoot to balmier climes…I laugh at the thought that some uber-developer Lord tries to shame the last vestige of Middle Class dignity left.

    1. Was life better under “local control” when there was a sign that told Negroes they weren’t allowed to cross the Ballard Bridge?

  10. Yes classism is a big problem in Seattle’s neighborhood politics, both among those who oppose new development (“quality of life”) and those who promote it (“eyes on the street”). In the north end, opposition to homeless encampments is more naked. In the south end, it takes on the “we have more than our fair share” of low income housing and human services discourse, even sometimes promoted market rate housing as an alternative (ie “We agreed to accept more density, but not this”

    1. You had me until “eyes on the street,” to my knowledge that was coined by Jane Jacobs. It’s not classist of me to not want to have used condoms in front of my house or have my mail stolen, is it? I’d like my street to be more active.

      1. I’m not sure what you’re trying to say.

        It’s not classist of you to want to avoid used condoms and petty crimes.
        It IS classist of you to think a homeless encampment must, necessarily, bring those things.

      2. “Eyes on the street” is the planner discourse for broken windows policing.

    2. Great article, Erica.
      Trevor, in Ballard and in Lake City, the “we have more than our fair share” meme is heard also. All opposition comes down to the same thing: get them out of our sight.

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