An explosion caused by a natural-gas leak leveled three businesses and shattered storefront windows around Greenwood Avenue North and 85th Street early on the morning of March 9. Where Mr. Gyros, Neptune Coffee, and Quik Mart had been, there was just a pile of rubble. Miraculously, no one was killed.
Now, just over three months later, the block is beginning to return to life. While the Angry Beaver and the Bureau of Fearless Ideas have yet to reopen, Chocolati and Cozy Nut Tavern are bustling again.
But for Hal Miller, life is far from normal.
Businesses weren't the only things displaced that morning. Miller, 60, and 12 other people lost their homes. Miller lived across the alleyway from the blast in an apartment building above Gorditos Healthy Mexican Food. The force from the explosion blew in the windows on the southeast side of the building. Luckily, Miller's apartment wasn't damaged, save a few things falling off of his shelves. But after city inspectors discovered the building was contaminated with asbestos, Miller and his neighbors were barred from going back to their apartments.
The owner of Gorditos, Shannon Ramirez, also owns the apartment building where Miller lived. Ramirez told The Stranger after the explosion that his tenants could move back in by May. But May has come and gone.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, a woman Miller was dating let him stay with her at her home in Monroe. But after about two months of living together, the relationship fizzled. According to Miller, she was generous enough to let him stay a couple weeks longer while he found somewhere to go.
Despite poring over Craigslist housing ads and phoning homeless shelters to see if they have any vacancies, Miller hasn't had any luck.
"I'm really running out of time," he said over the phone. In retrospect, Miller said he should have called shelters and asked to be put on their weeks-long waiting lists from the start, but he didn't think he'd be out of a home for this long. Now Miller is preparing to camp out on Seattle's streets.
Miller, who is unable to work because of a string of eye surgeries in the last four years, said he lives on about $660 a month from his disability checks. His monthly rent for his bedroom in Ramirez's building was $375—dirt cheap for Seattle. Although his rent took up around three-quarters of his income, the apartment was a lifeline for him.
"That place [the apartment building] is kind of your last chance before you hit homelessness," said Miller.
In a recent interview, Ramirez said he does not plan to raise the rent in his building, now being retrofitted to comply with current building codes, when it reopens.
Ramirez blames the city's permitting processes for the delay. But last week, contractors installed new windows and fixed the brick wall that faced the explosion. Now he estimates that his tenants can move back in by August 2.
For Miller, that means many more weeks without a home.
Red Cross workers offered help to Miller and his displaced neighbors. They were assigned caseworkers and each was given a Fred Meyer gift card so they could get some new clothes. Miller said the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA) also gave him two checks totaling $4,200. The money came from fundraisers for their Greenwood Relief Fund, which was intended to support residents and businesses affected by the blast.
Miller spent the money on clothes, food, a cheap laptop, and chipping in on rent at his ex's place. He also spent a few nights in an inexpensive motel when his ex had visitors. He now has a little more than $400 left. With only meager disability checks and virtually no support system, Miller is stuck.
According to Jeff Cornejo, development director at PNA, he doesn't think they will be making any more disbursements to displaced residents. The organization is low on resources, donations are barely trickling in, and there aren't any plans for another fundraiser.
Cornejo said he feels for Miller but isn't sure how to help. PNA is not a social-services center, he pointed out, and their ability to connect displaced residents with resources is limited.
"We're a community center," said Cornejo. "We put on events, we have a soup kitchen and a senior center. We do those kind of things, but we've never done emergency preparedness or this housing issue. It's a larger problem."
Colin Downey, regional communications director for the Red Cross, told The Stranger that the organization's volunteers worked with 12 of the 13 building residents. While the building's reopening date is dragged out, he encourages Miller and his neighbors to reach back out to the organization for help. But Downey was also realistic.
"They're disasters, and it's difficult to tell how long it's going to be," he said. "We don't have endless financial means to make everything whole."