Going to a real-life meeting organized via NextDoor, the social media app that allows neighbors to talk to each other “privately” online, is … well, a lot like going to a virtual meeting on NextDoor, only considerably more awkward. (To the NextDoor member who posted later that I “avoid eye contact” with people: Actually, I only avoid eye contact with people who have verbally accosted me, because I don’t owe anyone who mocks me online the opportunity to also berate me in person.)
This past Saturday, a group of about a dozen NextDoor members (and presumably a few folks who heard about the meeting through other means) met with District 6 council member Mike O’Brien and SPD North Precinct Captain Sean O’Donnell at the Salmon Bay Eagles club in Ballard to talk (and vent) about homeless encampments, property crime, squatters, and RVs.
After some introductory remarks from O’Donnell (O’Brien, who arrived late, sat down quietly to wait for questions), residents unloaded their grievances and frustrations on the two city representatives–and demanded answers. Over the course of nearly two hours, neighbors told SPD and O’Brien they feel the city doesn’t take property crimes seriously, doesn’t enforce the law against “camping” in public places, doesn’t do enough to keep squatters from living in houses slated for redevelopment, and doesn’t pay enough attention to North End neighborhoods, where property crime has increased even as crime overall has declined.
“What about us?” one woman asked pointedly, after O’Donnell explained the measures SPD is taking to deal with RVs and unsanctioned encampment. “We work hard, we try to pay our bills, and we are just barely making it by, and we get home and our car has been completely rifled through, things been taken, our house has been burglarized. I feel, and I know others have felt, the lack of concern from police” who ask car-prowl victims to fill out online police reports instead of coming to their homes to investigate, she said. “And if you see a police car, it’s like, ‘Oh my god! We got a police car!’ I’ve talked to other people on NextDoor and we just don’t see them.”
Another speaker, who lives in Ballard, said her house was burgled and although the police showed up in 13 minutes, she felt they didn’t do enough to catch the guys who stole between $6,000 and $8,000 worth of stuff after coming in through an unlocked window. “You’re terrified every time you come home,” another woman chimed in. “I go in before my kids because I’m like, ‘I hope we didn’t get robbed today. I’ve lived here for 12 years and I’ve never felt that fear before.” Another speaker said she no longer keeps her insurance and registration in her car for fear that prowlers may get her personal information, and wondered, “If we get pulled over [without registration], are we going to get in trouble?” (The answer is yes.)
For his part, O’Brien said burglars had broken into his house twice in the past year, and although “I want someone there, because I’m pissed, I also know there’s nothing they can do, so I’ve filled out reports online.” (O’Brien’s burglar was ultimately caught and implicated in more than 100 nearby break-ins.)
Needles, tents, and the dubious distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” homeless, occupied a big chunk of the morning, as neighbors expressed concern that their children and pets would step on an infected needle or be forced to learn about adult problems too soon.
“I would like my children to be children, and I would like my family, as taxpayers, to be able to use the parks and the open spaces that we have and be able to walk my dog without having to worry about what we’re going to step in or on, including the crazy guy … pacing,” one speaker said. “That is not something that I really want my 10-year-old daughter to have to be aware of when she’s simply taking may dog for a walk. These are the kinds of things that ruin our quality of life.”
A second speaker, from Ballard, added, “There are people camping right next to one of our landmarks, the Chittendon Locks. They’ve always camped up there, but now they’re right there, right next to the road where you can see them, and so I’m wondering, is there any effort to get those people to move along?”
A lot of attention has been paid to Mayor Ed Murray’s characterization of some NextDoor members, on this blog, as “working themselves into a paranoid hysteria.” Although many people at Saturday’s meeting took strong umbrage with that characterization, it seems fair to call the belief that your child will step on a disease-infected heroin needle both paranoid (I haven’t been able to locate a single reported example of this happening in Seattle) and somewhat hysterical. Certainly, city streets are no place for needles, and the city should have a system that allows users to discard them safely and to clean them up if they do not, but needles are also a fact of life in a city (and a country) with a heroin epidemic of unprecedented size. The wonder isn’t that homeowners are finding needles in Magnolia and the side of Ballard with water views; the wonder is that they haven’t appeared there sooner.
One of the speakers acknowledged as much—sort of. “Seattle is not alone in this battle agains the homeless and the drug addicts. This is a countrywide problem,” she said. “Exactly what the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t mind helping the people that want help and are willing to work for their help, but the people that don’t want the city’s help—they have to go.” She told a story about a man who wanted to camp in front of her house and was tapping a phone pole with a knife—threateningly, she said—while waving a stick in the air. O’Brien responded that even if that person was theoretically open to accepting help, he certainly wasn’t at that moment—and decades of experience have shown that just throwing people in jail because they’re addicted or homeless or mentally ill doesn’t solve those problems, and often makes them worse. “It’s not like walking up to this guy, who’s probably in crisis, and saying, ‘Would you like treatment now’ [is going to work], because he’s probably going to say no,” O’Brien said.
“So we have to keep managing that and keeping an eye on that person until he’s ready to say yes. And then when he says yes, we need to have a bed immediately available or a place to do, and we often do not have that.”
Finally, several people demanded “better data” to know how the city should be spending its money—why are people being turned away from Tent City, how many are addicted to drugs, and how many people are simply unwilling to accept services from the city? O’Brien, saying he was frustrated that in a city with thousands of people sleeping unsheltered every night, residents still demand more data before making any policy changes, told one resident, “If I tell you there’s 50 people or 100 people or 1000 dpoeple does it make a difference? We need more beds. … We know that there’s a massive demand for all those services [the city provides]. No one needs to wait to see the count.” That speaker pressed on, claiming that she had dutifully voted for housing levies, transportation levies, and “been patient through all the new construction” in her neighborhood, and yet problems like homelessness, the affordable housing shortage, and traffic persisted. “How do we really make it work this time?” she demanded.
O’Brien, lacking answers to rhetorical questions like “I voted to raise my taxes, so why isn’t it all better now?” (in the online world, this is known as concern trolling), pointed out the obvious: As long as the city, and the entire US, are in a homelessness crisis produced largely by an economy heavily rigged in favor of the very rich, pushing the visible manifestations of that crisis down in one place will only make them pop up in another.
“We’ve got people who made hundreds of millions of fraudulent loans on Wall Street that are not going to jail for a day and we’re sitting here arguing over whether we should arrest someone who’s addicted to heroin because they lost their housing,” O’Brien said. “We can’t fix that in this room, but as a society we have to talk about how do we make that better.”
Back on NextDoor, the handful of people who posted about the meeting called it a productive opportunity to talk about their issues with city officials in the room. I’d agree with them on one point—having a two-way discussion with your precinct captain and council member, even if you think they aren’t doing enough to assuage your fears about crime or dirty needles, is far better than yelling into the echo chamber of a site like NextDoor, where someone’s sighting of a “suspicious van” can quickly escalate into posted images of the van’s license plate and multiple calls to 911.
People on NextDoor have posted irrelevant personal information about me, links to photos so people know what I look like when they go to meetings, and insults that clearly violate NextDoor’s code of conduct (a code they were vigilant in enforcing when they temporarily kicked me off the city for reporting on a “town hall” meeting the police chief held on NextDoor late last month). Regardless, I plan to keep reporting on the site both because it remains an official partner with the City of Seattle, which continues to post updates and information available only to NextDoor members, and because shining a light (anonymously) on what neighbors say behind the supposedly closed doors of a private social media site says a lot about what drives the most politically active (and powerful) residents of our city, which in turn drives policy that affects all of us.
Private social media websites didn’t exist when I first started covering city politics, but they do now, and what happens on them is sometimes newsworthy, especially when they shape city policy. In the North End, there’s clear evidence that they have done just that—at a meeting in Ballard, Police Chief
Elizabeth Kathleen O’Toole referred to her NextDoor town hall before announcing a special property crimes task force, dedicated “almost exclusively” to north Seattle neighborhoods. As long as NextDoor serves as an organizing tool for a small but vocal group of neighbors who have the ear of City Hall, I’m going to keep writing about what those neighbors are saying there.