A facility in Ballard where homeless men and women can wash their clothes and take a shower has received the city's blessing, but the process has been stalled by a legal complaint filed by concerned neighbors.
Final permits for the Urban Rest Stop can't be issued until it's resolved. The delay is felt hardest by those struggling to enter the job market and be a part of society.
Justin Ingram sleeps alone under a tarp next to the railroad tracks near Golden Gardens Park. He wakes up around 6:30 and begins the long walk into Ballard. The temperature hovers right around freezing.
As he walks, Justin grows introspective. He says the holidays have him down in the dumps. "Everybody else is with somebody," he says quietly. "Even if you’re not into the holidays, you’re still apt to get lonely."
Ingram says he had a scare recently, where he went into hypothermia. He had to go to the hospital. Now, he says he keeps a mylar emergency blanket handy, just in case.
"I don’t want to go the way I’ve seen other people go," he explains. "They just settle into complacency and die a premature death."
Ingram says Ballard's homeless community has experienced what he considers a high number of deaths in the last couple years. "Some of these people are in their mid- to late-50s. They shouldn’t be leaving as soon as they do. So something has to change here."
But first, it’s time for breakfast. Ingram crosses Ballard Commons Park and heads down into the basement of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. The church offers a free breakfast for the homeless community.
And it is a community. Old friends reconnect and talk about the Seahawks. New relationships are formed around the bartering of cigarettes for bus tickets. A fight breaks out; a chair is thrown. A man known as The President spontaneously churns out rap lyrics.
"This is the hub of Ballard's homeless community," explains Justin. "If you want to find someone, you come here."
It's also where many people plan out their day. Justin plans to hit the Ballard Food Bank. There’s a worker there named Peggy. Peggy is one of the reasons Justin stays in Ballard. "She’s just got a big heart. She really cares about people."
Peggy inspires Justin to think about his future. He dreams of holding a job someday, like he used to. But he finds it hard to stay physically clean. There’s no place for homeless people to shower or do laundry in Ballard.
"Not being able to clean yourself for months, wearing the same clothes for a month plus, it wears on a person. And you don’t want to be around other people as much."
Ingram says after a while, he feels like an animal. "I’ve walked for miles and miles to try to get somewhere to be able to take a shower." Sometimes, the line is just too long and Ingram has to leave without a shower.
A Rest Stop In Every Neighborhood
There’s somebody who’s trying to make a hot shower a reality for Ingram. Ronni Gilboa manages Urban Rest Stops. They're places where homeless people wash themselves and their clothes. A new one is scheduled to open in Ballard.
Gilboa says there’s a huge demand. "A Rest Stop could open in every neighborhood in the city," she says. "And within a month they’d be up to capacity."
The building is almost complete. But Ballard’s Urban Rest Stop can’t move in to its new digs quite yet. Neighbors have challenged the building department’s decision to grant them a permit. That all has to be settled before workers can finish the space.
Candy Shop Owner Not So Sweet On Rest Stop's Location
Randy Brinker is a concerned neighbor. He owns a candy store called Sweet Mickey’s (it's named after his sweet old grandmother, he says). Brinker watches homeless people hanging out in the park all day. "Families like to bring their kids over, but with all this drinking and hanging out," Brinker says homeless park users "get loud, they get aggressive, they use foul language – and they trash the park."
Brinker says he and other concerned business owners have been written off as NIMBYS – Not In My Back Yard.
"Well, it’s funny, I didn’t know what the word NIMBY was until this whole process started," says Brinker. Now, he understands how the word undermines what he calls a legitimate argument. "It’s a term that you don’t really want to be associated with because it looks like you’re not interested in helping those people that are in need and that is definitely not the case."
Brinker isn't listed on the appeal that's stalled the Rest Stop's permit. But despite expressions of support during an informal poll of neighbors and businesses Tuesday morning, discomfort among Ballard's business community appears to be widespread.
Mike Stewart, executive director of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce wrote in an email that while he recognizes the need for such a facility, "I have heard nothing but negative comments and concerns from the surrounding community about the location of the Ballard Urban Rest Stop."
Other concerns include the possibility that Rest Stop patrons would crowd the sidewalk before the facility opened in the morning. The most vocal opponents of the Rest Stop live in residences to either side of the Rest Stop property.
The Ballard Chamber of Commerce proposed other locations in Ballard that Sweet Shop owner Randy Brinker says would have worked better: Locations that were down in the industrial part of Ballard, near the food bank, and locations that were closer to a bus line. Stewart says the Low Income Housing Institute, the Rest Stop's parent organization, ignored numerous requests to consider alternative locations.
But Urban Rest Stop manager Ronni Gilboa says it’s time to bring homeless services to where homeless people actually hang out. "You can’t hide a problem away. Poverty is here. It’s been with us forever. Some of us have been tasked with doing something about it. OK? So deal with it!"
Ballard's Long History With Homelessness
Mike Buchman of Solid Ground, a Wallingford-based organization dedicated to ending poverty, says Ballard has historically been a relatively good place to be homeless.
"There's a lot of light industry in Ballard, a lot of fishing jobs. A lot of seasonal labor. Ballard is a place that has historically house people that are more temporary in their engagement in the community, in part because of the fishing fleet. And Ballard has historically had a lot of housing that's affordable."
Buchman says that history explains why, as my informal Tuesday morning poll indicated, many in Ballard tolerate the signs of homelessness around them. And whether Ballard's homeless population were displaced by Ballard's recent development or came here from distant parts of the state (Justin Ingram, for example, came from Yakima), that history could be part of the reason they're choosing Ballard.
Urban Rest Stops Make Good Neighbors, Says Downtown Seattle
John Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association wants to see homeless services move into more neighborhoods, reducing the load on downtown, which he says has 40 percent of the city's subsidized housing units and over 100 human service agencies (downtown represents less than 5 percent of Seattle's geographic area). He says currently, people are traveling from places like Ballard and West Seattle to find services downtown.
Scholes says Ballard can take comfort from downtown's experience with its Urban Rest Stop. "I live a few blocks from it myself," he says of the hygiene facility. "Our general perception is they've been good neighbors."
So will the Urban Rest Stop be granted a permit? It may take a while for the legal dispute to die down before we can tell. Seattle's Hearing Examiner (a judge-like person who weighs in when citizens disagree with a city's decision) will consider the matter on February 10. And her decision is appealable to the King County Superior Court.