Despite What You May Have Heard, Most In Ballard Support Solutions

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Earlier this month, after criticism from constituents that he hadn’t sufficiently listened to their input on public-safety problems in Ballard, Magnolia, and other District 6 neighborhoods, city council member Mike O’Brien held a “Safe and Healthy Communities Forum” at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Ballard. The church, located right across the street from the Ballard Commons, has been criticized for providing meals to the homeless people who hang out in the park, by neighbors who theorize that providing food draws an unwanted criminal element to the area. The Commons, along with the nearby Ballard Library, is the undisputed epicenter of small-bore crime in the neighborhood, including public intoxication as well as public mental illness.

O’Brien started the meeting on a conciliatory note, pointing out that it had been just one year since an angry outdoor meeting about the siting of the city-sanctioned Nickelsville tent city on Market Street, where many of the same neighbors had showed up to oppose homeless encampments in the area.  “Over the past year, a lot has happened,” O’Brien said. “I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown. The city has made some mistakes; I’ve made some mistakes. But … it’s through those occasions where, despite our differences of opinion—sometimes very strong differences of opinion—that our ability as a community to be able to continue to come together …  gives me hope to believe that we can work together to solve our problems.”

After presentations by homeless advocate Alison Eisenger of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, and Assistant Police Chief Steve Wilske, the crowd of about 200 broke up into a dozen-plus tables for moderated discussions about what issues they saw in their own neighborhoods, and what solutions they would support to address them. The groups were pretty obviously self-selecting—while my table was made up largely of millennials  and liberal neighborhood residents opposed to “criminalizing homelessness,” others filled up with groups who arranged to attend the meeting via the generally anti-O’Brien Ballard Nextdoor page—but the moderator, at the discussion I sat in on, at least, guided the discussion without weighing in with his or O’Brien’s own preferred solutions. (The moderators were, in fairness, chosen by the city, and included several advocates for harm reduction and housing-first solutions to homelessness).

At my table, people expressed concern about the growing number of visible drug users in Ballard, related problems with discarded needles (a woman who works at the Ballard library noted the lack of sharps containers at library buildings), squatters (a young renter said she had come home to find someone trying to take shelter in her basement), and the lack of affordable housing in the neighborhood. “My landlord and I seem to live in different worlds, where she’s terrified about crime and the users and the people she thinks are lurking around every corner, and I just don’t see it,” one renter said. “It’s hard sometimes to separate the fact and the fiction.” Another woman, a homeowner who has lived in Ballard since the 1980s, said “it used to be that if you weren’t paying attention, they’d pull up in a moving van and take all your stuff. Every single house in my general vicinity, at one point, was hit.” A homeless man who uses St. Luke’s services bemoaned the lack of drug and alcohol treatment beds for people who want to get sober, noting that there isn’t much point in putting someone who wants to get clean now on a two-month waiting list for a detox bed.

At the end of the night, O’Brien reconvened the whole group and summarized the notes from the dozen or so tables: People were frustrated by the lack of police response to complaints, wanted to see the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program expanded to Ballard, thought the city should be more responsive to neighborhood complaints, generally supported studying safe drug consumption sites, and supported efforts to “humanize” people experiencing homelessness.

In a followup blog post titled “Do No Harm and Do the Most Good,” O’Brien summarized the responses and expressed optimism that his constituents agree on basic principles, including the idea that “everyone needs support at different moments of their life,” and that “meeting the needs of the most vulnerable will actually increase the health and safety of all of our communities.”

Well, not so fast. After the meeting, anti-O’Brien neighborhood activists complained on Nextdoor, Facebook, and neighborhood blogs that the forum had been a dog and pony show for O’Brien to pretend to listen to neighborhood residents’ concerns while plowing forward with his own predetermined policy solutions. They pointed to everything from the selection of the table moderators to the fact that O’Brien released a summary of each group’s feedback, rather than the handwritten table notes themselves, as evidence of a conspiracy to silence what neighbors actually said they wanted.

“This meeting was a set up right from the start,” one resident wrote on Nextdoor. “The fact that O’Brien was there on time was a big indicator. Then the other speakers were hand picked by him. Breaking into small groups and having moderators is a great tactic, nobody was able to ask him a question and he didn’t have to answer any. I didn’t stay for the wrap up, I wasn’t disappointed, I was HOT and disgusted.”

Another chimed in, “This was a political set-up. Those of us who opposed the above ‘shared outcomes’ were quieted. He did a great job making sure our voices were not heard. I really don’t believe he or his ‘groupies’ have any idea of the reality of what is going to happen if he gets his way. This entire city will look and smell like a garbage dump.”

Wondering whether my table was truly an outlier, I requested the notes from each table. Far from reflecting the “garbage dump” assessment of O’Brien’s critics, the notes showed a district, and a neighborhood, that was generally solution-oriented, proactive, and concerned about homelessness, drugs, and crime but hopeful about the future. While two or three tables seemed obsessed with “data collection,” “tracking the homeless,” dividing the homeless into two separate tracks (those down on their luck and those who “don’t want help”), and forcing drug users and mentally ill people into jail or involuntary commitment, the vast majority suggested positive solutions, such as lockers, more mental health treatment and drug rehab beds,  more legal places for homeless people to be during the day, and treating homeless people as neighbors rather than intruders. (Read the full, transcribed table notes here.) The upshot was a community that, like Seattle as a whole, includes some very vocal people who oppose change and see law enforcement as the solution to urban problems, and a much larger contingent who want to find solutions that don’t involve criminalizing homelessness or imposing civic martial law in neighborhoods. The minority  in the former group may not be encouraged by that obvious fact, but those who want solutions, not just endless gripe sessions, certainly should be.

3 thoughts on “Despite What You May Have Heard, Most In Ballard Support Solutions”

  1. The “despite what you may have heard” is the telling part of your headline. As a reader, I’ve heard from you that we in Ballard are griping NIMBYs who lack compassion for the homeless. As a 20-year resident of Ballard, I see and hear a different reality. We are concerned by lack of city planning/coordination on how to deal with our growing homeless population, are dismayed by an increase in crime and public safety concerns, and are dumbfounded and upset that a city and neighborhood filled with expensive development projects doesn’t seem to have the means to care for folks who need support. And we’re amazed that the city can be planning to build an expensive new police station to support “community policing” rather than have small substations in the very communities the police are trying to serve (I was there the day of the La Isla attack. It took a good half-hour for the police to arrive while residents held down the perpetrator, who was threatening people with a glass shard).

    The O’Brien event was a show of good faith and the packed house on a sweltering night is evidence that people truly care about finding solutions. I found the lack of context frustration, (e.g. what problem exactly were we being asked to solve,) and lack of clarity around the issues even more so. I asked O’Brien if a lack of funds was a problem. “Not exactly,” was his response. Personally, I would have liked to understand what the most pressing problems are (Lack of community services? How about mobile support trucks and teams? Lack of available shelter space? How about using some of the new levy funds for transitional housing? Lack of money to fund all of the above? How about steeper impact fees for developers? Note that O’Brien couldn’t tell me whether the Ballard developers pay any impact fees. Lack of affordable housing? Do the Ballard apartment complexes have affordable units or are they exempt from the grand bargain? What’s the plan when the RV lot closes?).

    These are complex issues that require leadership, coordination, communication, and civic engagement. Rather than pit groups against each other or paint concerned citizens as heartless NIMBYs, we would all be better served understanding the scope of the problem, potential solutions (which you’d hope are coming from our elected officials and the experts who advise them), available resources, additional resources needed and how to get them. I hope that future civic meetings and future media coverage will focus on the facts, show what’s working and what isn’t, and what plans and supports are in place in response to city action (like closing the Jungle or the RV park).

  2. First thing . . . the title here is disingenuous. “Most support solutions . . . ” –Seriously, is there anybody who’s against solutions? The doesn’t make sense unless you specify whose solution is being debated. (Example: Most support O’Brien’s solutions . . . )

    Second thing is that I’m rather skeptical of Mr. O’Brien’s follow-through. He has not been helpful when I’ve come to him with criticisms of his current “solutions” to the homeless crisis. I’m talking about the homeless camps run by Scott Morrow or SHARE. This in an example of a “solution” that O’Brien promoted to the residents of Ballard. When I pointed out to Mr. O’Brien that SHARE camps are run as the personal fiefdom of Mr. Morrow, with no right of appeal for homeless campers who get ejected, O’Brien’s aide told me that he thinks the existing SHARE-run grievance appeal process is just fine. Mr. O’Brien has also refused direct requests from me to follow-up with Sharon Lee of LIHI, who acts as a co-sponsor of these camps and supposedly provides case management services to them. Ms. Lee does not answer my questions about just what services (if any) her organization actually provides to the camps.

    See here:

    Any “solutions” offered by Mr. O’Brien need to include openness about how they are being managed and whether or not they are actually working. Otherwise it’s just more feel-good PR.

    1. I would say that a lot of people in many neighborhoods seem to support sitting around and griping about how awful everything is rather than doing anything, which is what my headline is intended to convey. The solutions that were suggested are mostly complementary, but would probably conflict somewhat in practice, so I’m definitely not saying “O’Brien’s solutions.” The suggested solutions included everything from drug treatment and counseling to additional public restrooms, which are hardly unique to CM O’Brien.

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