Marylee Mahar witnessed the sort of misery in the urban slums of Kingston, Jamaica during her three-year stint in the Peace Corps that she hopes never to see out her window in Ballard. But she fears it's coming. And she's working to stave it off with a tight-knit group of volunteers, a state representative, and a plan: get one small car camp started in the parking lot of a church in her community and show the city and the neighbors that it's a sane alternative to intolerable and unsafe conditions.
Mahar and a group of Ballard cohorts last year formed the Ballard Homes for All Coalition with the prompting of state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, who represents the neighborhood as well as Queen Anne, Magnolia, and Belltown. She has talked to a majority of the Seattle City Council about the idea in meetings that Rep. Dickerson has frequently joined. And her group has approached the Human Services Department, who, she says, consulted with the Mayor's Office and replied that a car camp in a church parking lot didn't violate any laws they knew of.
And with a group of UW students called TiLT ("Architects work for Seattle's homeless," March 26 - April 1) Ballard Homes for All designed and constructed a prototypical mobile shower unit (Just Heard, Sept. 24-30) for the use of car campers, named Rover 1.
Now they have a budget request: $10,000 in city human services funding this winter will establish one pilot project -- a small camp of three to four vehicles -- and put a part-time organizer there to help people move on up.
"This is an interim solution for people living in their cars," says volunteer Jean Darsie, who joined Mahar in these efforts a while back. "The hope is that from that base they can help themselves, with help from their friends, to get a stable place of their own."
By informal counts -- the number of people coming to a Saturday morning soup kitchen, for example -- Ballard is home to 50-100 car campers who, turned away from roadside spots in industrial areas where the city last winter put up "no overnight parking" signs, move their vehicles a few blocks to another curb.
The number of people living in their cars in King County is up 25 percent over last year, according to the 2008 One Night Count by the Seattle/King County Coalition for the Homeless.
Residents "let this happen because they know these people don't have any alternative, but there's no concerted effort to go beyond that, and that's what we're trying to do."
Homes for All's effort has met with criticism. On the news blog myballard.com, Mahar fielded inquiries last month from readers responding with posts like this: "Will you consider criminal background checks, [drug] testing and proof that campers are from this community (i.e. proof of an address from Ballard before becoming homeless)?" And: "Please respect our community and the people you are trying to help by moving them to an area where they can be more successful."
After press reports described the Rover shower, Mahar says churches in West Seattle and Port Orchard contacted her expressing interest in using their parking lots in the same fashion. At the Sustainable Ballard Fair, she had two full sheets of names and email addresses of would-be helpers to take the project forward. "There were engineers and architects and jacks of all trades, they all want to help," she says.
City officials have told Ballard Homes for All that their $10,000 request is a nominal amount, but that money will be tight next year, says Darsie.
Meanwhile, Rover 1, which was built with Darsie and Mahar's money, is sitting idle.
"We're happy the [University Christian Church] has taken on Nickelsville. Maybe we'll work with them," says Mahar. "Somebody should be using the shower."