Photo by Peggy Sturdivant 
At the Public Forum on Safe & Healthy Communities meeting, attendees called for "real solutions." See Peggy's column on page 20.

At Large In Ballard: Table 13

By Peggy Sturdivant

I figured if a woman 30 years older than me with hip trouble was going to get herself to the Safe & Healthy Communities Public Forum hosted by District 6’s Councilmember Mike O’Brien being held at St. Luke’s on July 29, I had no excuse not to attend. After all the public, homeless, formerly homeless and currently housed, was invited to “become part of the solution” for public health and safety.

I chose Table 13 by an open exit door hoping for a breeze. North Precinct Captain Sean O’Donnell may have had the same idea.

Arriving by bicycle I saw Director of Neighborhoods Kathy Nyland arriving on four wheels. Still burning from the Mayoral decision to no longer provide DON staff support to Neighborhood District Councils I wished her bad parking karma, but she didn’t seem to have a problem. I read she’d been offered the position due to her organization of the Neighborhood Summit promised by Ed Murray during his campaign. I went to the Neighborhood Summit at Seattle Center with high hopes and left feeling like I’d just been job fair for the city during a hiring freeze.

So no expectations for the community forum “to engage, educate and active residents,” just a realization that there were 200 people in the room, more city employees than I’ve seen in years and no one else from the “Westside Weekly.” Organizers, including a young John Waters look-alike, had to go scrounge an additional 30 chairs from the adjoining building where the volunteers serve breakfast every morning.

O’Brien welcomed the crowd with a recollection of another hot July night one year ago when citizens had organized the siting of a transitional encampment next the VFW Hall on Market Street. “I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I’ve grown.” He didn’t elaborate, instead turning over the microphone to an Assistant Chief of Police and then Lisa Daugaard, Director of the Public Defender Association and Alison Eisenger, Director of the King County Coalition on Homelessness.

The SPD acknowledged their priorities in North Precinct are homelessness, mostly related to addiction, and property crime (also related to addiction). He shared that they have a new app that will provide crisis response resources instead of searching through online documents and that other precincts are being trained in Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). It’s geared to “divert low level drug and prostitution offenders into community-based treatment and support services” with the goal of improving public safety and public order. (I learned most of this by looking up LEAD after the meeting).

Daugaard and Eisinger both spoke to the necessity for real solutions, starting with seeing addiction and poverty as public health issues not crimes. “Do no harm,” Eisenger said, “Do what most works and be transparent.”

Next on the agenda was “small group breakout sessions” with a pre-designated city-selected facilitator at every table. We were reminded to be respectful of one another while identifying our main concern, creative solutions and then committing to what we would do to be part of a solution.

Even if I’d been trying to report on the whole forum rather than participate at a table it would be impossible to summarize 200 voices throughout the large room for the next 45 minutes. I could barely hear what was said at Table Thirteen. My older friend confessed later that she couldn’t hear anything at all, and she had to leave early so her car didn’t get locked into the library garage.

I suspect issues were similar between tables, the difference being whether you speaking as one with a home or without. My table was all housed and they were concerned about safety and disturbances by Ballard Commons, squatters, growing heroin use and waste including syringes, human waste and a body left under the Ballard Bridge. More drugs, more property crimes, less of a sense of livability. The consensus was that increased density has made it harder to co-exist. Too much hardscape is making us hard,” I wrote, based on what I was hearing.

In response to the call for creative solutions came, “better use of city properties, why not housing on top of a new precinct building or instead of a green roof on the library.”

“We’re a wealthy city,” another table member said, “why isn’t there money for more social services?” This begged the question of developer fees. Another suggestion was a real playground for children instead of Ballard Commons, with a grandmother wondering where will the children be able to play in the urban village?

An architect in our group shared that he doesn’t think an “all carrot, no stick” approach is working. He thinks it shouldn’t necessarily be up to someone whether to accept treatment or not. Several at the table thought safe consumption and safe injection sites would be a good idea, and definitely more social services including 24-hour shelters and more housing options.

A resident in the Ballard core suggested building relationships leaders in the local homeless community. The police captain shared de-escalation training and the positive results in other precincts with LEAD.

Mike O’Brien closed the forum by sharing some the “next steps,” perhaps he and his staff had been visiting different tables. He mentioned suggestions for more programs and more services, safe consumption sites, transparency about “our” work, humanizing unhoused people, more housing, Sharp’s Disposals in public restrooms. “This is the beginning of a conversation,” he said, telling those who had stuck it out till 8 p.m. that all the comments and notes will be collected and “debriefed” and available in a couple of weeks.

When asked for solutions I said more community outreach, then remembered the meeting was outreach. I guess what I really want is ‘reach back.’ And I would like Councilmember O’Brien to take the lead, as in LEAD to the North Precinct so that even more of us than 200 in the room can be part of the solution.

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