On June 12, 2021, Victoria Shutts launched Shuttsie Love, a small — but effective — resource center for people in need. She moved the box for resources she’d placed in her Meadowbrook yard to the corner of her lot, on a side street near an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. She supplemented the box with a small fridge and some drawers with dry goods and hygiene essentials.
The project was motivated by her mutual aid work during the initial days of the pandemic. Alarmed at the fact that food banks and churches were closed during lockdown — services she sees as essential for the survival of homeless people — Shutts began dropping off food at encampments.
“Lake City had a couple of pretty sizable camps, so we would go get a list and then deliver or bring pizzas. Then they were swept, and I was like, how can I make a consistent place for people?” she said. Thus the pantry.
Even now, as life has returned to some semblance of normal, she sees a need for a 24/7 place where people can access food.
“Food banks are open, like one to four on a Monday on a full moon in June. So how is a student that’s homeless, who’s supposed to be in school, supposed to get to a food bank?” she asked.
Since the pantry was moved to the corner, it’s gotten quite a few upgrades, including a hot water tureen for instant soup and coffee, as well as a street sink. The street sink program, a project of the Real Change Advocacy Department, was designed to address the city’s lack of public restrooms and hygiene facilities. That was severely exacerbated by business closures during the pandemic. The sinks operate off a hose bib, making them relatively easy to set up in parks or private yards.
Shutts’ mutual aid pantry has also grown quite the community around it. As she stood in front of the 10-foot-by-10-foot canopy tent that covers the pantry, on June 6, a neighbor stopped by to stock the fridge with ham and cheese sandwiches. Ivan, a regular pantry user whom Shutts had invited to spend a few nights under the section of the tent that is behind the pantry and fully in her yard, enjoyed a midday snooze. A whiteboard hanging over the fridge was full of messages, mainly thank-you notes from grateful visitors.
While the overwhelming majority of people who interact with the pantry support it, be they users of it, neighbors or students at the nearby schools, not everyone does. A few neighbors, along with the online anti-homeless crowd, have vehemently opposed it.
In an email to Real Change sent June 1, Shutts wrote, “Over the 2 years we’ve been open, both myself and the visitors endure constant harassment from neighbors. They are constantly photographing all of us, posting on Nextdoor, calling the pantry a Drug Shack (and other names) and dehumanizing the people that rely on the pantry. They drive by slowly & stick up their middle [fingers]. They call the school to report it not being safe for students.”
Shutts estimates that the pantry is visited by about 40 students a day and serves about the same number of homeless or low-income adults.
Nathan Hale High School administration, while initially supportive of the pantry, stopped a student-made educational film about it from being aired in homeroom classes. The school also asked, citing complaints, that Shutts remove any mention of Nathan Hale, its students or its student clubs from the pantry’s signage and social media.
The pantry’s detractors also blamed it for the presence of an enduring encampment in a hollowed-out stand of holly bushes a block west of her home, Shutts said. That encampment was eventually swept and has not returned, while the pantry remains in place.
“I’d like to, as well as so many others in this neighborhood find out how to get rid of that ‘food shack’. Sooo many reasons why … But today I’m looking at the garbage that those life forms leave all over the roads,” wrote someone named Pam C. on the neighborhood social media app Nextdoor.
Shutts has mostly dealt with it through humor — besides being a way to communicate with the community, her Instagram constantly lampoons the pantry’s critics — but also with face-to-face conversations. She visited the three most active critics of the pantry who live in her immediate vicinity, hoping a bit of human interaction might help. The first one ended up apologizing for their comments and donating $100 to the pantry’s mutual aid fund. The second didn’t exactly become a sponsor, but he did listen to her perspective and amend his own a bit, she said. The third, however, was impossible to win over.
While the ongoing harassment is disheartening, Shutts said, what really has her worried is the Nextdoor crowd’s use of the city’s Find It, Fix It portal to target the pantry. They’ve submitted numerous complaints, and those complaints have resulted in visits from the authorities.
Public Health – Seattle & King County has been by, Shutts said, and had no problem with the pantry, besides asking her to tighten up food safety standards a bit. They were pretty clear about what she needed to change during their visits, she said, which made it easy to comply.
The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), however, have not been as easy to work with.
SDCI came by in response to Find It, Fix It complaints, specifically one that read, “The person at this house has been operating an outdoor food pantry for over one year at this location on the sidewalk. My understanding is this may be a violation of Municipal 15.17.120 as it is no longer ‘temporary’ food vending and appears to be permanent. This food pantry attracts all manner of people, including someone who assaulted a woman outside our home a few months ago (she declined to file a police report).”
The incident with the assault, Shutts said, involved a man suffering from mental health issues that caused him to believe he was being surveilled. He attempted to take the phone of a woman walking by and was prevented from doing so by the husband of that third neighbor, the one who Shutts couldn’t get through to.
The first SDCI inspector, Colin Elliott, found no issue with the pantry.
“There is no home occupation zoning issue as there is no payment. There is no junk storage zoning issue as the items were in good repair and under cover. The only possible problem is if encroaches on the right of way (sidewalk),” he wrote in a March 22 report.
However, SDCI conducted a second inspection, this one by Gregory Lum.
On May 31, Lum wrote, “The area is a [single-family home] that is a few blocks away from a middle school and high school. While I was there I saw three students come to the structure and be attended to by an older male. I saw money exchanged.”
He issued Shutts a notice of violation and a citation that same day. Shutts spoke with neither of the SDCI inspectors, she said, and wasn’t present when Lum came by. She does not know who the man Lum observed was and said he certainly wasn’t acting as an official representative of the pantry. It is, she emphasized, a free pantry.
Related to Elliott’s note about a potential right-of-way violation, SDOT also sent an inspector, Stephen Hadley, on May 19. Hadley issued Shutts a street use violation warning. She was home that time, but Hadley did not approach her or speak with her. She saw him sitting in his car, looking at the pantry and taking notes, she said, and approached to ask what his business was there.
While Shutts takes pains to keep the pantry off of the paved sidewalk, in a dirt patch next to it that abuts her yard’s retaining wall, it turns out that might not be her dirt.
Narins Bergstrom, a neighbor and friend of the pantry who has experience handling code and zoning issues, volunteered to help Shutts sort out the situation. Bergstrom found out that particular corner of Shutts’ lot actually belongs to the city. While Shutts isn’t eager to move the pantry fully inside her yard, it may be necessary. Either way, Bergstrom said, she doesn’t understand why the city is being so vague about it.
“If they’re not conspiring with complainants to shut the pantry down, they are certainly doing a poor job of filing their paperwork in the public portal and notifying the property owner of what’s going on,” Bergstrom said.
It is unclear whether SDCI’s findings carry a fine — the entry for the citation in the city’s document portal says it is a warning — or how Shutts and Bergstrom could appeal the decision.
Lum, his supervisor and SDCI’s public information officer did not respond to emails and voicemails requesting comment. Shutts did receive an email from Hadley on June 13 telling her that she had to move the portion of the pantry that sits in public right-of-way or face escalating fines.
“I am disinclined to change the compliance date of Friday, 30 June 2023,” Hadley wrote. “If the pantry has not been removed from the public right-of-way by the aforementioned date a second violation letter will be issued contingent upon an inspection confirming the pantry has not been moved. If a second violation letter is sent a new compliance date will be set.”
Failure to meet the second compliance date would carry a fine of $250, with a violation of the next compliance date after that costing $500. If Shutts were to flaunt further compliance dates after the $500 fine, fines would rise to and stay at $1,000 for all other violations. Effectively, it means she has to move the pantry away from the sidewalk and into her yard. In a June 13 text, she questioned SDOT’s decision.
“Yes the dirt patch is city property,” she admitted. “But [enforcement] seems to mostly depend on what you’re using it for. Flower, plants, stacked rock walls: good. Community pantries: bad.”
Reflecting on the pantry’s fate, Shutts wrote in that same text thread, “What will I do now? Fuck if I know!”
She also bemoaned the opacity of the city’s process, writing, “They call it a ‘structure’ but won’t permit it. What would make it not a ‘structure’ — Ie, what can I legally offer by way of free food & mutual aid on this property? The city won’t talk to me, so it’s all in total limbo, which is cruel. People are relying on this, in more ways than 1. I hate to let them down again.”
At the end of the day, she said, she is just baffled by the fact that her neighbors, who have so much privilege, can’t find it in their hearts to tolerate people with none.
“This concept is not always pretty or graceful & absolutely does require sacrifice & compromise,” she wrote, also in the June 9 text thread, “but in a neighborhood where the [average ...] family home is selling for $1.125 million in under 2 weeks, we can afford slight inconveniences.”
One of her neighbors, at least, sees the pantry as the opposite of an inconvenience. Around 3 p.m. on June 8, Shutts’ neighbor Vanessa stopped by to drop off a blouse and a box of menstrual products she didn’t need.
“What am I going to do with an open box of maxi pads that I don’t like?” she asked. “But I can put it here. It could really be helpful for someone.”
She enjoys having the pantry close by because it affords her an opportunity to pass on some of those odds and ends that would never make it out of the blue bins at Goodwill. Gently used clothes, she noted, are in high demand, as are old shoes. Such items are often gone by the time she and her toddler finish their 20-minute walking route.
While she’d had some concerns about the pantry, especially when the nearby encampment was still in place, she said she’d ultimately come around to it. Most of its visitors, in her observation, grab what they need and get going. Given its relatively low impact on the neighborhood compared to how much it helps people, she’d like to see it stick around.
“I would be bummed if it got shut down because people seem to really appreciate it. Some of the thank-you notes are so heartfelt that people write up there,” she said.
Vanessa’s visit came shortly after a woman named Angel stopped by, looking for a hot cup of soup and something to drink. Instead, Shutts, who was overjoyed to see Angel after a long absence, ran inside and whipped up a bowl of fried rice for her.
As Shutts heated up the food, Angel explained that, while the pantry wasn’t the only place she got food in the north end, it was an important one. Because of the food, of course, but also for feeling welcome and like she mattered.
“I thank her a lot for having us even up and at her house,” Angel said. “She could have just dropped this many years ago and didn’t care, but she does.”
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