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.