On Saturday, Aug. 27, Jean Darsie, a dedicated advocate for the environment and Seattle’s unhoused population, especially those living in vehicles, passed away from an untreatable cancer. Despite her illness, said Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, the director for the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, who worked closely with Darsie on the Scofflaw Mitigation Project (SMP), she continued her advocacy work up until just before her death.
“She remained, until a month and a half or two months ago, taking phone calls from me and being my advisor, which I always called her. I kept her up on my work and what we’re doing, because she was one of the founders of this,” he said. “It’s hard each day going forward to have that place gone.”
Darsie grew up in California, where her family moved during World War II while her father served in the military. She came to Seattle for school, living in the University District for a time before going off to work in Scotland. After she returned to the area for an IT job with King County, she never left, buying a house in Ballard and settling in.
The house, said Lisa Connolley, the pastor of the Coupeville United Methodist Church and a close friend, was something that Darsie “cherished for the next 50 years with her beloved larch trees and large yard full of flowers, fruit trees, veggies, succulents and weeds. She truly loved watching the beauty of the garden as well as the bunnies and squirrels at play.”
She was preceded in death by her beloved cats, whom she laid to rest among the flowers in her garden. Besides gardening and squirrel-watching, Darsie was an avid outdoorswoman and loved to hike the region’s many mountain trails.
“If you wanted to see Jean smile, point out a spot of beauty in nature,” Connolley said.
Her love for nature explains how she got into environmental advocacy work — she led a carbon-neutral life and was a very active member of Sustainable Ballard — but not humanitarian work. That, according to Michele Marchand, who met Darsie through their involvement with Women in Black, the Homeless Remembrance Project and SHARE/WHEEL, began with Sept. 11, 2001, and the launch of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
“It was the first time in her life she’d stepped into the fray of social justice work and activism. She learned about the Thursday antiwar Women in Black vigils then being held at Westlake Park and came to find us. There, she found a way to stand public witness, and many ways to speak and work for justice,” Marchand wrote in a short remembrance shared with Real Change.
She was well-known for standing with a sign displaying civilian casualty counts from the wars and the simple question, “Why?”
After answering that initial call to fight for justice, she did not stop answering it until the very end.
Besides standing in Women in Black’s antiwar vigils, Darsie marched in support of economic justice, racial justice, women’s rights, Palestine and the environment, Connolley said. Marchand noted that Darsie was also instrumental in the Homeless Remembrance Project’s efforts to install the “Tree of Remembrance” sculpture in Victor Steinbreuck Park, as well as the project’s many bronze “Leaves of Remembrance” in various Seattle neighborhoods.
In the late aughts, seeing so many people in need in Ballard, Darsie helped found an organization initially called the Ballard Homes for All Coalition, now known as the Ballard Community Taskforce on Homelessness and Hunger (BCTHH). As part of her efforts to combat homelessness, she advocated for programs including the Ballard Urban Rest Stop, Cheryl Chow Court, a number of tiny house villages and the Ballard Nickelsville encampment. Her work earned her a “Housing Hero” award from the Low Income Housing Institute, which now administers several of those programs.
Additionally, as a former IT professional, she often provided crucial tech support for cash-strapped nonprofits, Kirlin-Hackett said.
Darsie’s signature accomplishment, however, has to be the programs she spearheaded to combat vehicular homelessness.
While she didn’t invent the concept of a safe parking lot for unhoused individuals living in their vehicles, Darsie was instrumental in organizing the first ones in Seattle. Initially, she arranged for area churches to let people park in their lots. Later, she moved on to more official efforts.
“The safe parking program was just sort of an early idea. I worked with Jean and several other advocates to develop the first grant for a safe parking program in Seattle,” said Dr. Graham Pruss, an expert on vehicle residency. He met Jean at a community meal program he ran in Ballard. He said her work inspired him to return to school to study the issue of vehicular homelessness. He plans to dedicate his next published article to her.
“Jean was a pioneer in work around vehicle residency and, I would say, a tireless advocate for vehicle residents,” Pruss said. “She was one of the first people I know who was going out and looking at other communities and how they were responding compassionately and with inclusive policies for vehicle residency, rather than the more common punitive policies.”
In 2011, the Seattle City Council passed its “scofflaw ordinance,” which allowed parking enforcement officers to place a bright yellow boot around the tire of any car with four or more unpaid tickets. Darsie joined with advocates, including Kirlin-Hackett, to found SMP, through which they did outreach to identify people living in their vehicles. They then coordinated with the city to keep those residents from falling into an endless cycle of unpaid tickets, boots and impounds. As part of that process, SMP also worked to connect vehicle residents with housing and services.
“Jean, bless her heart, never took any money for any of the stuff she did, not even mileage,” Kirlin-Hackett said, praising her for putting so much time and energy into her advocacy efforts. She continued to do outreach until her illness rendered her unable to walk, he said.
It is not surprising, given just how much she did, that the list of friends and colleagues mourning her passing is nearly as long as the list of her accomplishments.
“She was wise, compassionate, and diplomatic. She could quietly move mountains! I miss her!” wrote Elizabeth Maupin, coordinator for the Issaquah Sammamish Interfaith Coalition. Maupin worked with Darsie on a safe lot pilot project that eventually became “Road2Housing” and said that Darsie was the first person she’d heard speak up on behalf of vehicle residents.
Betsy Greenman, who worked with Darsie on the Homeless Remembrance Project, recalled spending a day with Darsie cleaning the bronze leaves in Ballard Commons.
“Her realistic, yet impish, sense of humor carried us through a long day of being on our knees with brushes and polish, water and rags, as we polished about 30 leaves,” Greenman said. “Jean will be missed.”
Sally Kinney, a fellow member of the BCTHH, wrote that “Jean was an exceptional human being. She combined two qualities that aren’t always present in one individual: `a strong determined voice of advocacy, unafraid to speak truth to official power, and at the same time a sweet kindness that drew people to listen to her and to change their minds and attitudes.”
While all of these people knew her in different ways, they seemed to agree on two points: She was wholly dedicated to making the world a better place and, perhaps more importantly, especially good at the cat herding required to make that happen.
“Everybody is fractured right now. Everybody’s got a grudge against somebody else. Even on the same side of the table,” Kirlin-Hackett said. But that didn’t faze Darsie a bit. “She was one of the people who could work between and among everybody. […] Jean just always wanted everybody at the table.”
Pruss agreed. “She fought for the good of her total community,” he said. “She will be really, really missed for that. She was one of the rare people who tried to hold the responsibilities and the respect of all people in her community together and not pit one against the other.”
Tobias Coughlin-Bogue is the associate editor at Real Change.
Read more of the Sept. 7-13, 2022 issue.