Photo by Jerry Gay
Michael Dollemore has lived in vehicles in Ballard for 15 years now. He is just one of many.

Moving forward on homelessness in Ballard

You may have seen them: The rows of RVs lining side streets in the industrial areas of Ballard; the people who claim the Ballard Bridge as their home; those who sit for hours at the Ballard Commons Park with seemingly nowhere else to go.

They’re hard to miss. Homelessness affects a lot of people in Ballard. And now that the temperatures are dropping, it’s only going to get worse.

The King County “One Night Count” last year counted a total of 2,594 people who lived on the streets last year, not including those who were in shelters. Every year, no noticeable drop or reliable trend has happened in the One Night Count. And with the 10-year Plan to End Homelessness ending in 2015, it seems that homelessness is here to stay for a while longer.

Many homeless people, particularly in Ballard, are left camping in vehicles. 791 of homeless people in King County, or 30 percent of people living on the streets, were sleeping in their vehicles during the One Night Count. In the industrial areas of Ballard, where oversized vehicles over 80 inches wide can legally park, the problem is more visible. That’s because Ballard is home to one of the only industrial areas tied close to resources (food bank, library, transit, police, public restrooms), commerce and a residential community.

“Right now there’s this huge population of people specifically in vehicles that have been unrecognized or ignored, you know, forever, until literally this last year,” said Graham Pruss, chair of the Ballard Community Taskforce on Homelessness and Hunger.

Actions can be taken to help homeless people, Pruss said, it just requires community cohesiveness.

“When we work apart, we work against each other,” he said.

In Ballard, he said he was amazed by community support and interaction between different agencies. He said advocates, social services, parking enforcement, the Seattle Municipal Court, churches, business leaders and other community members were all lending a hand to help homeless people.

“There is so much people are doing, there’s so much more we can do, and frankly I’m amazed at people’s ability to change the world -- and they’re really doing it here,” Pruss said.

Indeed, walking into a BCTHH meeting, a diverse array of active and engaged people can be seen circling a long table. The meetings are open to the public and people with concerns are encouraged to come and have a discussion.

The meetings take place the fourth Thursday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in the Swedish Hospital Ballard, Main Entrance, Conference Room B&C.

Though the taskforce is entirely voluntary to be a part of, its members have taken on several obligations to help homeless people.

They are working to update a resource guide, a comprehensive list of resources that they hand out to homeless people in brochure form. Pruss said that many homeless people have no idea how to access the resources that are there, and that the resource guide is a valuable tool to equip them with a tool to help themselves.

BCTHH members are also working with churches to expand the Safe Parking Pilot Program, which started last year at the Our Redeemers Lutheran Church with five spots and which, at its beginning, received plenty of media attention. Pruss said progress has been significant, with two sites now active with a total of seven spots for vehicles. Several more churches are working to come online by the end of the year.

Overall, churches have provided 19 individuals or families with safe parking and entry into transitional or rapid rehousing. Their case managers provide background screening on participants, plus assistance in accessing housing, medical and employment services.

Some taskforce members, known as the Ballard Stone Soup Group, with the help and donations of local businesses, also serve soup on Sundays from 5-6 p.m. underneath the Ballard Bridge using donated food.

And once a year on Thanksgiving night, Pruss, business owners, homeless people and community members work together to provide dinner for homeless people all over, even those hiding in bushes.

There are other ideas in the works, too.

The group is gathering support to clean up the underside of the Ballard Bridge, where many homeless people camp and which serves as a “gateway” to Ballard for many. A mural to beautify the bridge is also being considered.

They are also exploring the possibility of installing another port-a-potty somewhere in Ballard. Currently, there is one at the Ballard Commons Park, which may close for the winter season. Community members often complain about hygiene problems associated with homeless people, Pruss said. A place to actually go to the bathroom could help that, he said.

Pruss did note that he was by no means advocating installing a port-a-potty on “every corner.” But, he said, at least one more might help.

Of course, where homeless people reside, often so do community members concerned about the possible criminal activity some homeless people can bring.

“We all see this person dealing (on NW 57th St) … I’m not saying everything who resides in a vehicle is nefarious, but we have to do something,” said a community member at the Ballard District Council meeting in October, where homelessness was discussed.

At the BCTHH meeting in October, a resident who lived in senior citizen housing had similar concerns.

“Where are we going to put these people?” she asked. “I’m sympathetic. I really want people to have access to the food banks , I really want people to have access to counseling, but I fragrantly want policing for those who are drinking in public. … The seniors must feel safe, that is the underlying thing here”

Pruss did not dismiss these concerns outright.

He said that people aren’t wrong to be concerned about criminal behavior and that people who are doing wrong should be treated as such. He said he believes that by getting innocent people off the street, it will be easier for cops to target those who are doing wrong.

Michael Dollemore, who has lived in a van or RV in Ballard for 15 years now, agreed that not all homeless people are innocent people.

“Some of their misconceptions aren’t misconceptions,” he said. “There are some real pieces of work out there.”

However, Pruss said that the people who commit crimes are in the minority.

“It’s like the biggest tragedy about how much people don’t see that, about how people label the entire group with that one offender,” he said. “You can’t criminalize poverty.”

In essence, Pruss said that nobody wants people to be homeless.

“In reality we all want the same thing: We want homeless people off our streets,” Pruss said. “We all want them to have better access to resources so they can live a better life, we all want to end homelessness.”

Homeless people, too, don’t want to be on the street.

“I wish I had a place where I could park and be off the street,” Dollemore said. He said, if he could, he would rather have a place where he could stay put and not have to worry about having to constantly move and be hassled.

Dollemore also explained how homelessness could affect anyone. The only difference between people in his situation and those who live in houses are a couple months of unemployment and a few missed payments, he said.

Pruss emphasized most of all that homelessness is not unsolvable and that homeless people are not beyond help. He said he believed that many were actively trying to make their lives better and that they just needed a hand to help connect them with resources.

“They’re looking for any kind of light at the end of the tunnel, that there might be an ability to get out,” Pruss said.

To connect with the Ballard Taskforce on Homelessness and Hunger, email them at bcthh.info@yahoo.com.