The city will shutter Ballard Commons for six to twelve months.
The city will shutter Ballard Commons for six to twelve months. HK

Although he said most of his site was trash, Boar, a long-term resident of Ballard Commons, tidied up his shelter on the northeast corner of the park the day before the City would close it for renovations, which could take six months to a year.

“I just want to do right by the park because it did right by me,” Boar said.

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That day REACH, a homelessness outreach organization, offered Boar a spot in Rosie’s Tiny House Village. Boar said they had initially referred him to an enhanced shelter called Otto’s Place, but he returned to the park after staying there because the strict nature of the shelter wasn’t his “dig.”

Boar gladly accepted the tiny shelter at Rosie’s for him and his close friend, but he said he was sad to have to leave his community at Ballard Commons. He had become close friends with a woman who lived in the apartment across the street, and he said she would visit him with her seven year-old son most days. When they heard that the City would force Boar and the others in the park to move, Boar said his housed neighbors cried.

“That’s a neighborhood,” Boar said. “They’re gonna miss me, and I’m gonna miss them. I'm invested here, and so this is kind of like the end of an era for us.”

Mutual aid workers brought signs, as well as food, supplies, and plenty of hands to help the residents pack up their things.
Mutual aid workers brought signs, as well as food, supplies, and plenty of hands to help the residents pack up their things. HK

Bye-Bye Ballard Commons

On Tuesday morning, the City, outreach workers, and mutual aid volunteers agreed that about seven to 10 Ballard Commons residents remained in about two dozen, largely empty tents. One outreach worker said the encampment’s population was at the smallest she had ever seen. At times, nearly 100 unhoused people lived in the park.

As early as August, Councilmember Dan Strauss, who represents Ballard, called for a clearing modeled after JustCARE’s softened approach to sweeps. “We should not be using our parks, libraries, and buses as our homeless shelters,” he told KOMO.

The JustCARE model taps a bunch of outreach service workers to build relationships with encampment residents, coordinate housing plans, and then to slowly move people indoors. That process differs from the more sudden and jarring approach of the now-suspended Navigation Team, which removed about 1,200 camps during its two-year reign.

According to the City, at least 60 Ballard Commons residents have accepted housing or shelter options since Oct. 12. The City’s HOPE Team and other outreach providers referred at least 56 of those 60 to the new Rosie's Tiny House Village and the Interbay Tiny House Village.

Well, public for some.
Well, public for some. HK

The park’s final hour

The day of the closure, the Parks and Recreation Department showed up at around 7:48 am in anticipation of the 9 am clearing.

“Where are the trouble spots gonna be?” one Parks and Recreation worker said to a city employee at about 8 a.m. “Everywhere?”

In the hour before the looming cleanup, REACH continued to coordinate last-minute housing for the remaining residents.

But a half hour before the City began actively shutting down the park, at least two long-term residents said that neither REACH nor other providers had offered them housing options. The last time I checked in with those residents, they were finishing a conversation with the HOPE Team before leaving on their own volition.

“Why don’t they come up with a solution that actually makes sense?” one of those residents said of the City. “Put people indoors. Do they think we want to be out here in the middle of winter? No! We’re not crazy.”

I asked REACH how many housing arrangements its outreach workers made for Ballard Commons residents that morning. I will update if they respond.

With the help of dozens of mutual aid volunteers, some who knew all the remaining residents by name, many Ballard Commons residents left the park quietly before the City could force them out of their homes. Not everyone who remained that morning will end up inside.

The day before the park closure, one young man who lived in Ballard Commons told me that outreach workers had yet to offer him a housing option. The next morning, he was offered a shelter space, but he declined it because the option had too many rules. He said he would have taken a tiny shelter, but, as of around 10 am, he said he planned to relocate somewhere nearby.

City workers preparing to remove their first target, Boars site. Boar was not there at the time.
City workers preparing to remove their first target, Boar's site. Boar was not there at the time. HK

Bad options in a broken system

It is not uncommon for a person living outside to elect to continue to live outside because of the restrictions that come with shelter. Boar, who left a shelter that was too restrictive for his liking, said, “I would rather suffer and be free, then to do prison-style living [in a shelter].”

Not everyone could get into tiny shelters, which appeared to be the option favored by most of the people living in the park. One of Boar’s neighbors, for instance, had a history of violent crime, which disqualified them from that shelter option.

An unhoused couple who set up camp at Ballard Commons last night could not get the tiny home accommodations they wanted, so they packed up and relocated a few blocks away.

One REACH worker said that unhoused people will often move into a camp right before the City sweeps it in the hopes that outreach organizations will find them shelter. Case workers will even tell their clients to show up at encampment clearings to secure housing referrals because many spots are saved for these displaced residents. The outreach worker said sometimes the size of encampments doubles overnight in anticipation of a sweep. The incentive for unhoused people to come to a sweep is a “byproduct of a broken system,” he said.

Despite its status as one of the largest encampments in the city, outreach workers said the morning was relatively “status quo.” Mutual aid workers brought food, supplies, and plenty of hands to help the residents pack up their things. Outreach workers made hurried phone calls to pull together last-minute accommodations. And at about 9 a.m., the Parks and Recreation department ran the remaining belongings through a shredder or dumped them in a garbage truck.

Boar showed up around 9:30 am, his voice cutting through all the commotion as he called out for the friend he planned to share a tiny shelter with. Half an hour later, he hadn’t yet found the person. By that time, the City had already destroyed his home on the northeast corner, but he was happy to see they spared his bike.