Fire at Ballard Commons encampment stirs up debate on next steps

SEATTLE — A fire at the Ballard Commons homeless encampment over the weekend is the latest incident at the park. It’s stirring up controversy between homeless advocates and concerned residents on what’s the best path forward.

Advocates who’ve been working on their own to bring things like tents, batteries and food to camp residents are worried that attention on the Ballard Commons encampment will speed up the city clearing people out.

However, others in the neighborhood say more attention on the park is what will help get people staying at the park the help they need.

The fire over the weekend burned up a tent, and the Seattle Fire Department said they received reports of multiple propane tanks exploding. No one was hurt and a fire department spokesperson said the fire’s cause was undetermined.

The fire is latest in a string of incidents at the Commons. A woman was shot in August. In July, a man living in a van was attacked and sent to Harborview Medical Center.

Neighborhood group the Ballard Alliance has been calling on the city to get the folks who at the Commons both help and housing, and say they’d like to see camp cleared and the park restored. Some people in the neighborhood agree.

“Do we need to wait until someone dies here? Is that what we’re waiting for?” said Wyatt, who works in the neighborhood and declined to share his last name.

However, on Monday, people are advocating for the unsheltered say if this camp gets cleared, that will bring an even worse toll.

One woman who frequently comes by the camp said she’s been helping people at the Commons for the past year. She said she’s a Ballard resident and didn’t want to publicly share her name, but expressed her deep concern about the city’s next steps.

“These are stroke survivors, people with chronic illness, mental illness. So as a result, when these shelter beds are offered and when sweeps happen, they’re going to get leaf blown all over the city,” she said.

“Starting over as we enter winter… to have the basic needs that you do have gone, and the only community you know, and the only support system that you have is now gone – people will die,” she said. She also said because of safety concerns – from bedbugs to rape – many will decline emergency shelter beds.

Some residents who are currently staying at the camp say they will not move again.

“I refuse to move this time. I’m sick of moving. It’s a waste of money. Every move is a waste of money, you’re shuffling us around,” said a man who goes by “Roach”.

He said life has been even harder since the city turned off the electricity and reduced the number of bathrooms.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” Roach said. “They want us to get jobs? How can we get jobs if we can’t charge our phones?”

He added that the trouble happening isn’t coming from camp residents.

“There’s a fire, there’s a shooting.  The people who did the shooting don’t live here but we’ll get the blame for it,” he said.

Neighbors say – if something doesn’t change, they’re worried for what’s next. Wyatt said he was assaulted at the Commons in late July. That and other experiences made him decide to get a concealed carry license.

“It sucks we have to resort to defending ourselves,” Wyatt said. “I never felt the need to be armed, but things have gotten bad enough,” he said.

“It (the camp) is not sustainable whatsoever. And everyone, regardless of political affiliation, wherever you lie on the spectrum -  we all want the same end result. We want to see those who need help, get help,” Wyatt said.

We asked Mayor Durkan about this camp during a press conference  announcing new affordable housing. The city calls the Ballard Commons a “priority camp” but said on Monday there is no timeline for when the camp might be cleared.

During a press conference announcing new affordable housing on Monday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan was asked about the Ballard Commons camp.

“We have a number of places coming online that will provide more outlet for emergency shelter, so that we can start working with those larger encampments. Broadview Thompson, Ballard,” Durkan said.

“I’m not saying I don’t recognize we have real public safety challenges for Ballard and other places. We’ve seen that. We’ve seen fires. And we’ve had to make the difficult decisions to move some encampments for those reasons. But first and foremost we have to try to deal with the humanity,” she said. “We can’t lose sight of the humans living in those conditions – to get them the housing and shelter they deserve as well,” Durkan said.

The city said the following shelter and housing options will launch in the next few months:

Keiro 24/7 Shelter – Africatown | 125 units | October 2021

Queen Anne Shelter – Seattle Indian Center | 40 units | October 2021

Interbay Tiny House Village – LIHI | 34 units | November 2021

Friendship Heights Tiny House Village – LIHI | 50 units | November 2021

Rosie’s Village Tiny House Village on Sound Transit Property – LIHI | 36 units | October 2021

JustCare | 89 units| August/September 2021

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