“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
Part one: Ron Williams
This is the first of a three part installment.
by Stephen Miller
- The Capitol Hill Times -
We’re walking South on Broadway, under the Vivace umbrellas, past the Rite Aid and across Olive Way. The regulars, the weathered faces behind the tattered cardboard signs, are taking on a whole new meaning. Not because I’ve suddenly tapped into some new understanding of the struggles of the Hill’s homeless community, but because I’m walking with Ron Williams, and he’s giving me the background on every man, woman, nook, and alley we pass.
The spot outside the Rite Aid is a hassle. A man standing motionless with a glazed look and worn-out sign is bipolar. An alley off to the right is a hotspot for heroine use. Williams says he used to set up shop selling clothes against the now defunct Hollywood Video, but the guys out front of Dick’s got too hostile. Now he sells candy from this brick wall out front of Seattle Central Community College, watches the students march each Wednesday, turns away the girls who run up asking to trade stacks of used needles for candy.
Williams knows all this because he is a part of this community. He has lived this reality in Seattle and on the much harder streets of Los Angeles. A sturdy, 60-year-old man with freckles and a greying goatee, he talks quickly, explaining that he is in between places, in large part because he gets caught up in trying to help those around him. Today, he is caught up in the Seattle Action Network, an organization he founded, and of which he is currently the sole member, that is dedicated to working with Seattle’s homeless community to mediate problems and find jobs for the neighborhood’s homeless.
When we met, he carried a stack of papers: flyers, pamphlets, pages printed from the Web. He had pulled all this data to support a concern he’s been harboring: that the Hill is on its way to getting rough, and that little is being done to stop it.
“There’s a lot of anger on Capitol Hill,” he says. “Everyone’s fighting for a spot.”
In January, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness held its annual count of those it could find living on the streets. It reported 1,898 homeless people in Seattle, a 6 percent increase from the numbers reported last year. Williams’ concern is that many of these people are moving from Belltown up to Capitol Hill, a notoriously more accepting neighborhood, and some are bringing the underbelly of street life with them.
“Go to Cal Anderson right now and someone is going to offer you stolen phones, laptops, meth,” he says as we’re waiting to make our way around the streetcar construction. Of his spot outside SCCC he says, “People walk past me almost every other day with a bike for sale.”
For anyone who has spent any time in Cal Anderson, this may not come as novel information, but Williams says he’s noticed a difference from last year. He sees more violence, theft, drug use, and especially antagonism from beggars for whom the Hill’s philanthropic reputation hasn’t held up.
The key isn’t finding a cure, he tells me, it’s preventing the problem. But “outreach isn’t really there on Capitol Hill,” he says. People on Capitol Hill believe they live in an area where they don’t get robbed, “and then it happens.”
Williams has been at his Broadway post selling water bottles and candy in an attempt to fund a brick and mortar office for the Seattle Action Network. Each morning, he uses pubic computers to check Craigslist for available labor jobs that he can then pass on to those willing to work. He points to a row of garage doors facing the western edge of Cal Anderson and explains how much more effective it would be to have a place where people could drop in to find jobs.
Back in front of Dick’s, he points to the square, metal newspaper boxes that often serve as a podium for those appealing for spare change. The guys who set up shop here are looking for money, not burgers, he explains. Hanging out in that spot, you will get some 30 burgers a day. “Who’s going to eat that many burgers?” he says. Instead they stuff the extra sandwiches into the newspaper boxes and pocket the cash.
I can’t help but laugh nervously. He tells me repeatedly, straight-faced, that he’s not trying to be funny.
The office he envisions would also serve as a headquarters from which he could run outreach programs to CH’s homeless youth and mentally ill. When pressed, however, it is clear that he knows the chances of selling enough Snickers bars and bottled water to rent out a space on the Hill is unlikely.
Smaller steps. Today he’s working to get the week surrounding Block Party recognized as Crime Prevention Week. His fear is that the rowdy energy surrounding the weekend music festival will spill over into the unstable, and often drug-altered homeless and gang communities. His hope is that applying the crime prevention label and encouraging the community to take a more active approach to mediation will keep things from getting out of hand. As of this morning though, he doesn’t have enough cash to blanket the neighborhood in flyers and is still working alone.