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News / Northwest

Why is there so much homelessness in wealthy Ballard?

By Greg Kim, The Seattle Times
Published: April 7, 2024, 5:12am

SEATTLE — Ballard is a bit of an anomaly. Despite being one of the wealthier residential neighborhoods in Seattle, a lot of people are living outside there.

That juxtaposition has sparked debate around homelessness that at times feels more intense than anywhere else in the city.

During the pandemic, as an encampment at Ballard Commons Park grew to dozens of tents, the fervor to do something about it reached a fever pitch as housed residents bemoaned the changing of their neighborhood beyond recognition.

Ballard was not always wealthy. As housing prices exploded over the past several decades, some residents who had previously been able to afford the formerly blue-collar neighborhood became homeless.

And as encampment removals forced people to move around the city, some were attracted to the area around Ballard Commons Park, where a cluster of services are located in close proximity — a legacy of the neighborhood’s past as a gritty hub for seasonal workers who relied on meal programs run by churches when times got tough.

Ballard’s economic transformation may have caused some to forget its history as a place where visibly poor people always lived and could rely on help.

While the debate about homelessness in the neighborhood has calmed recently, some are still anxious about the people pushing their belongings in shopping carts through the area.

Churches and bars

There were always poor people in Ballard, and there were always groups taking care of them, but it used to look different.

Ballard was its own city between 1890 and 1907, before being annexed by Seattle. While Ballard Avenue today consists of trendy boutique clothing stores and pubs, it used to be full of single-room-occupancy hotels, “seedy bars,” pool halls and hardware stores, according to “Early Ballard,” a book about the neighborhood’s origins.

It was known for its fishing fleet, as well as lumber and shingle mills, earning it the distinction of “the shingle capital of the world.”

Seasonal workers in those industries, usually single, Scandinavian men, would head into town from work camps or step off fishing vessels. Looking to blow off steam before they went back to a crowded boardinghouse, they patronized one of Ballard’s many bars, according to the history book “Passport to Ballard.”

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church started to feed the workers who overspent their earnings or developed a drinking problem, according to the Rev. Canon Britt Olson.

The church, founded in 1891, was one of the earliest in Ballard, and was joined by dozens of others throughout the 20th century, many of which provided aid to homeless and hungry people during times of high unemployment and economic depression.

There was a widespread myth that Ballard’s code required as many churches as bars. Although no record of such a law can be found, Ballard’s population was “hard-drinking as well as churchgoing,” wrote “Early Ballard” author Julie D. Pheasant-Albright.

“Ballard had been set up to serve people on the economic margins because of our maritime and timber industries,” said Dan Strauss, a Seattle City Council member who grew up in Ballard and has represented the district since 2020.

Before 2000, Bergen Place Park, an open square in the center of Ballard’s business district, was a hub of public disorder, according to Strauss. But after a fire burned down the hotel next to it and a canopy covering Bergen Place was taken down, he said, there wasn’t a concentration of visible poverty in downtown Ballard for a while.

Backlash grows

After the city designated part of Ballard an “urban village” in the 1990s, zoning changes to increase the density of housing brought high-rise apartments to the neighborhood, while low-income housing like single-room-occupancy hotels faded away.

From its blue-collar origins, Ballard transformed into one of the more expensive residential neighborhoods to rent in Seattle today, where median household incomes are 14% to 44% higher than the city as a whole, according to the U.S. census.

Many who could no longer afford the quickly rising rents moved into their cars. Old mill worker housing below Market Street shut down and turned into industrial areas, and they moved into those areas to park overnight. Ballard has long been home to a large number of people living in their vehicles.

“Many, many, many of them have long-term ties to this neighborhood,” St. Luke’s Olson said.

Homelessness has increased about 60% across King County over the past decade. Many in Ballard noticed a significant change around the mid- to late-2010s.

Lisa Pekar, who for 17 years has managed Haven Salon, a block from Ballard Commons Park, said she saw the first tents appear there around this time.

Jean Johnson, owner of Tea Cozy Yarn Shop next to the salon, said that’s when she stopped seeing children and families at the park.

In 2016, the city of Seattle cleared out The Jungle, a large encampment that had grown for years unchecked underneath Interstate 5 stretching from Sodo to Beacon Hill. Outreach workers said it scattered the people living there to all parts of the city.

A 2017 count of homelessness shows that Ballard may have been disproportionately impacted, with a one-year quadrupling of homelessness in the neighborhood, outpacing the increase in other parts of the city.

But that didn’t come close to the change in visible homelessness that the pandemic brought.

After the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instructed cities to stop clearing encampments to prevent the spread of COVID-19, an encampment formed at the Ballard Commons that ballooned to dozens of tents with 85 people sleeping there at one point.

Data from the city of Seattle’s “Find It, Fix It” app, a way for residents to report issues to the city, showed that the Ballard Commons had or complaints than any other location in 2020 through 2021. One Facebook post from 2020 by neighborhood news site My Ballard about an encampment removal at Ballard Commons Park garnered more than over 250 comments.

“To have that happen right in my backyard, in this little quaint Ballard, was very, very upsetting,” said Pekar at Haven Salon, who said she felt unsafe at the time.

Pekar used to live in Ballard but has since moved to Magnolia, another wealthy area of Seattle, which she said “doesn’t have any homeless people.”

She and others blame Ballard’s homelessness on programs like St. Luke’s Edible Hope Kitchen.

“Wherever you hand food out for free, that’s where you’re gonna get your homeless people,” Pekar said.

The Rev. Olson points to the decades the church provided free meals when Ballard looked drastically different.

“The situation has changed in our neighborhood because of larger factors: COVID, gentrification and the lack of places for people to go,” Olson said.

The long history of poverty in the area has contributed to a cluster of services and places within a single block of Ballard Commons Park that people who are homeless rely on.

Kirby Rodriguez, a northwest Seattle outreach coordinator for REACH, said that as unsheltered people move around the city as a result of being shooed from one encampment to another, more end up staying in Ballard because of the concentration of services.

Dontae Mitchell, 41, started living outside in Ballard several years ago after bouncing around between Sodo, Aurora and other parts of King County.

Most days, he gets breakfast at St. Luke’s, then walks to the library to use the bathroom, one of the few public spaces still open to homeless people. Just around the corner is an Urban Rest Stop where he can shower or do laundry. Later, he might walk over to the food bank for lunch and groceries.

Mitchell says there is a closer sense of community among unsheltered people in Ballard than in other areas of Seattle because spaces like these let them spend the day together. People are more willing to share, trade resources and look out for each other in Ballard, he said.

“One of the most definitive themes of Ballard’s history has always been its unique sense of cohesiveness, cooperation, and collaboration,” according to “Early Ballard.”

Cooling the temperature

Today, Ballard Commons Park is generally clear of tents, and the conversation around homelessness appears to have cooled.

Ballard Alliance Executive Director Mike Stewart said Ballard Commons Park became a flashpoint because it’s the only green space for people living in nearby market-rate apartments.

In 2021, Stewart along with Strauss, homelessness nonprofit REACH, and the city collaborated to conduct a type of encampment removal that was newer at the time. Outreach workers spent months meeting with people at the park, figuring out what they needed to move into housing, and actually got the vast majority of people inside rather than moved to another location outside.

More than 60 out of the 85 people that REACH counted at the park moved inside to shelter or housing.

Chloe Gale, a vice president of policy at REACH, said another notable aspect of the encampment removals was that people at the encampment were able to stay with their friends and community as they moved inside.

Elements of this approach to addressing homelessness continue to exist in Ballard. REACH created an outreach team specific to Ballard, and has since replicated that model to six or seven other neighborhoods.

“There’s still a lot of work to do. But Ballard’s in a better place today than it was in 2019,” Strauss said.

Ballard Commons Park has stayed clear largely because of another type of removal, one in which the city’s laws allow it to move people without offering shelter if they are an “obstruction,” which the city defines as any tent that exists within a park.

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Lori Baxter, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said the city learned the community had a particular interest in keeping Ballard Commons Park accessible, and said maintenance of this area “contributes to an improved relationship between housed and unhoused neighbors in Ballard.”

The city offers people shelter and provides advance notice of removals when possible, she said, but quickly addressing tents in the park prevents a full-scale encampment from forming, which would require a greater amount of limited city resources.

On a Thursday morning, the park was quiet and mostly empty. Several city employees were working on a new playground set to open this year that officials hope will attract families back. A park concierge was putting out tables, chairs and games like cornhole that no one was using.

After St. Luke’s Edible Hope Kitchen closed at 10 a.m., a crowd of a half-dozen people filed out into the park to lounge. Most of them sat down on benches in front of the spray park and chatted. One man suddenly knocked over a metal trash can, yelling at city workers that someone had taken his belongings.

Many people who are homeless have heard the message that the city is less tolerant of camping in the area. Mitchell says some people who used to stay in Ballard left, back to other areas like Sodo. He used to stay in a tent, but now sleeps in an underground parking lot. And during the day, he looks for places to stay out of people’s way.

“Up here, you don’t want the city to get involved like that,” Mitchell said.