One Ballard business is trying a new strategy for discouraging nearby homelessness: spraying water onto homeless people's belongings.
While covering an encampment sweep at the north end of the Ballard Bridge earlier today, I noticed a jet of water streaming over the fence of Mac's Upholstery. It was coming from a garden hose that had been carefully perched on top of an automobile inside the fence. The water poured down onto a collection of tarp-covered objects, including two bicycle forks, placed between a fire hydrant and bike path. The surrounding grass was flooded.
To be clear: while it's hard to imagine an alternative explanation, we haven't actually identified the owners of the flooded items or confirmed that they're homeless.
An employee of Mac's, who declined to give his name, said that the hose was intended to "help the meth heads find another place to live." When I identified myself as a reporter, he declined to give further comment and gave me the owner's business card. (Seattle Weekly has a message into the owner, Tony Mazzarella, for comment.)
Two Ballard residents stopped by to view the spray. Mike Reilly of Dyna Contracting said that the water had been spraying intermittently since at least Monday.
"I was shocked because I work next door," he said. "Obviously, you can see what it's for. It's not a fountain, it's definitely a get-the-hell-out-of-my, you know, a deterrent. At first I thought, God, it's freezing this morning. If there's someone in there that's either passed out or highed out or nodded out, they could freeze to death.
"So when I saw the guy [from Mac's] later I was like, 'What's going on?' And he said, 'Well, there's no one in there.' And I said, 'What's your end game here?' And he said, 'It's a deterrent. This stuff needs to go. [We're] going to soak it wet so it's worth nothing.
"Once I realized there was no one in there, I felt a little better. 'Cause I was like, dude, someone's going to freeze to death in there. I didn't know whether it was a heroin huddle or whatever. There's a lot of that out here."
Reilly said that he can empathize with both sides. "There's a humanitarian side, and then there's a business side," he said.
Bennett Barr, a writer and Ballard homeowner, said he was "disgusted" by the water hose setup.
"It's cruel," he said.
"I understand that the city is going through a period of rapid change, that a lot of people are moving here," he said. "My neighbors get upset about density, lack of transportation infrastructure. I think that their frustrations there, maybe that bleeds over into their feelings about the homelessness crisis."
Barr cited the heroin epidemic, income inequality, and Seattle's affordable housing crisis as drivers of homelessness."Here in Ballard you have people who decry increases in homelessness and the lack of affordable housing, but at the same time they oppose density and new construction and end up undermining the very things the city could do to address those problems," he said.
"I think that the reactions of my neighbors are paradoxical--and, as you see here, not simply callous but actively cruel," he said.
Bennett was visibly emotional while speaking. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm affected," he said. "This seems to me like an indication of untreated mental health and perhaps addiction issues. I don't know.
"But this is probably the entirety of a person's belongings who lives on the street during Seattle's rainy season. It's cold, and it's wet, and the response of this business is to douse their stuff in water.
"It's a failure of common human decency and a failure of humanity."
UPDATE: Here's some video, in case you don't know what moving water looks and sounds like.
UPDATE: KIRO/MyNorthwest reports that the manager of Mac's is defending the hose-spray as a way to "get a dialogue started" with the owner of the belongings.
"This was a way to try to get some response in a non-threatening manner," he said. "Water never hurt anybody. Kids have water balloon fights all the time."
The manager told KIRO that he found a dead body, killed by a heroin overdose, in that location two months ago. "In this neighborhood this is very common," he said, "so we don't just start dissembling garbage because there could be somebody in there. So we approach it with a very cautious manner."
KIRO's Dori Monson was skeptical. "It sounds to me like you were doing what people might do with stray cats that are going through their garbage: You turn a hose on them and hope that they get away and hope that they associate something unpleasant with digging through your stuff," he said.
The manager replied that he'd "be happy" with that result.
Casey Jaywork covers City Hall and policy for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com or 206-467-4332. Follow him on Twitter at @caseyjaywork.