In July, Molly Tallon received a letter via the “Ballard Parents” online group from Mike Stewart of the Ballard Chamber of Commerce declaring that a future homeless tent encampment in Ballard had “the potential for extremely negative consequences.”
Before that, she was unaware that 2826 NW Market St. had been slated as a potential city-owned site for an encampment.
She forwarded the letter to her friend, Vanessa Laughlin, a University District resident who had personal experiences helping people who lived in Tent City 3 (TC3), when it was in the Green Lake Park and Ride. Laughlin’s reaction was simple.
“Let’s fight fear/hate with some love and burritos,” she wrote.
While Stewart called on residents to email city officials with concerns about the encampment, Tallon and Laughlin offered an alternative call-to-action: greet any and all future encampment residents with help moving in, hold supply drives and offer big welcome dinners complete with banners. By reaching out to “Ballard Parents,” they are gathering participants for the Ballard Welcome Wagon, which met on Sept. 11 for its first planning session.
Stewart’s letter marked the beginning of often-volatile pushback from some neighbors and business owners in Ballard who fear the encampment will bring crime and damage businesses.
“[The letter] made me very angry,” Tallon said, “because it comes from a place of not seeing people who live on the street as people, but as problems.”
Ballard resident Claire Rzegocki said she has been deeply saddened and surprised by what she has seen in the media about the encampment.
A community meeting on Aug. 12 at Leif Erikson Lodge frequently screeched to a halt as audience members shouted and jeered at speakers. City officials said they were looking at alternative sites but that Ballard was not off the table.
“I’d been reading articles about the angry outcry and the ‘not in my backyard’ and the extraordinarily negative response,” Rzegocki said, “and it just made me feel sad that that was our neighborhood reaction. If there was going to be a welcome event, I wanted to join up.”
Rzegocki said she would be willing to help with whatever the residents need, but first things first: “A gesture of welcome, so they don’t have to feel like the scum of the earth, rejected at every turn. Beyond that, whatever comes up, we have the capability.”
Wendy Shark, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said the city has not yet decided whether it will move forward at the Ballard site. But the Welcome Wagon organizers said they want to help no matter where the encampment ends up.
“All the people spreading fear and hate — I would love to prove them wrong, and I would love to stand out there with 50 people holding welcome signs with their kids and families, and sit and eat dinner with the residents, and have those photos on the front page of the Seattle Times,” Tallon said. “I would love to change minds.”
Tallon was out of town during the Erikson meeting, but said if she could have been there, she would have told the audience, “We are better than this” — despite her hatred for public speaking.
“That’s the other part driving me,” she said. “I want to show that they aren’t the majority, even though they are the loudest.”
A Change.org petition, called “Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” has sprouted in support of the Ballard tent encampment, garnering 1,900 supporters as of early September — at least 250 more than a petition titled, “Don’t Tell Ballard to Shut Up,” which lambasts the city for refusing to consider community concerns about the encampment site.
Laughlin’s positive view of tent cities comes from organizing events for tc3, which she saw as a community of good neighbors who left the place cleaner than it was before. When it first cropped up, she’d drive by each day on her way home from work. Eventually, she could no longer ignore it.
“It was sort of just a bucket of cold water in the face,” Laughlin said. “When the weather was really terrible and you are driving home from work, going to get groceries — driving by an economic refugee camp two blocks from Whole Foods — then going home to your warm house, at a certain point, it’s like, something breaks.”
So she stopped to say hello at the 24-hour welcome desk. From there, she brought boxes of sweaters, held coat drives, helped set-up and take down the encampment as it moved and, of course, organized a burrito dinner, thanks to a handy spreadsheet that formulates a grocery list when you tell it how many burritos you need. Now, she sees burritos as much more than a way of filling stomachs.
“Stereotypes start to break down when you sit down together,” she said. “The biggest thing is how hard it becomes to look away when you talk to a person who is homeless, and they become not a homeless person in the abstraction, but a person you can have a conversation with and share stories with and have a burrito with.”
That same awareness is what she wants for Ballard residents.
“There’s all this discussion over whether you should place it in an urban center and whether that is a viable spot,” Laughlin said. “There is something to be said for not burying things, but actually putting it in a place that makes it easier to get involved.”
In his letter, Stewart underlined the fact that the future encampment would be five blocks away from Adams Elementary School. But Tallon said she looks forward to having her 2-year-old by her side at a future welcome dinner. It would be the perfect opportunity, she said, to teach about acceptance, love and support.
“I don’t want my kid to grow up in a bubble,” Tallon said. “I don’t want him to grow up and think that everyone lives in a house and everyone has a car and everyone goes to school with a bunch of friends and shiny new supplies. I want him to have a rounded view that there are people who have less than us and people who have more than us, and we are all the same. No one is better than anyone else, and if we can do just a little to make someone’s journey easier, because we happen to have more than a lot of people, then we can do that.”
“I think nothing but good will happen from having the tent city in Ballard,” Tallon added. “Ballard will only be better. And our kids will only be better.”