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Original 'Skid Road' : Homeless Add a Sad Note to Gentrified Seattle Area

March 24, 1987|PATT MORRISON | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — By sunset, the down-and-outer was already settled into his usual spot under the antique iron pergola, his feet tucked into a drawstring plastic trash bag. Here, along Yesler Way--the nation's original "Skid Row"--it was the cocktail hour.

The man on the bench drank his from a bottle in a paper sack; the well-heeled people strolling by would take theirs from handsome crystal in Pioneer Square's charmingly restored bistros a few dozen yards away.

Skid Road was christened here in the 1850s, when logs were "skidded" by horses, mules or oxen down the steep, timber-lined path to Henry Yesler's thriving sawmill on Elliott Bay. In time, the banks and railroad money took the city's prosperity uptown and left the loggers and dockhands behind. Skid Road became Skid Row, the generic label for the dilapidated haunts of the unemployed and unemployable in the abandoned downtown of any city.

But the pressure is on: As the number of street people grow, their traditional turf is disappearing. In Seattle's "gentrified" downtown, apartments, restaurants, shops and galleries thrive within uneasy proximity of the drifters and drinkers, the mentally troubled and the just plain down-on-their-luck--about 2,000 of them at present--who for 50 years had the now-vanished flophouses and taverns to themselves.

New Panhandling Law

"Every day--blood, fights, throw-up. A lot of tourists are intimidated. It's hard on everybody's nerves," said Pioneer Square shopkeeper Lori Kinnear. The city's new, so-called "aggressive panhandling law," which makes persistent physical contacts by panhandlers a misdemeanor, is helping a bit, she says.

The friction shows just how complete the downtown spruce-up is--and how acute is the problem of homelessness.

"Now it's yuppieland up there. Street people are not gonna fit in and the merchants don't want them," said Robert Willmott, a rangy, fast-talking advocate for the homeless. Willmott runs a meals program and prides himself on his local billing as a "Lone Ranger of Street People" who enjoys putting burrs under bureaucratic saddles.

On the other hand, Willmott said, "You can't blame a guy who pays $100,000, $200,000 for his condominium and has to step over bodies to get to his door" for being angry.

At a time when America is agonizing over how to help its street people, the original Skid Row has unique problems beyond the usual shortages of shelter and alcohol programs.

Monthly State Stipend

Seattle, with its scenic amenities, may have one additional lure--one its detractors call the "drunk check." It is a monthly stipend of up to $314 that Washington state pays, with few strings attached, to alcoholics and drug abusers who are certified unemployable. It is meant to buy food and shelter but, in fact, often serves as "a ticket to further pain and addiction (that) makes no sense," a recent King County report said.

"They pay people to drink," Willmott said flatly.

"It's easy to get on the check--no problem," said Michael Dye, 44, a one-time heavy equipment operator from California who rode a freight car here six months ago. He is saving the $261 a month he gets from the state for "nice clothes and an address" so that he can go back to work.

"If you're not serious, (the check) gives you $261 to stay drunk on. That works out to $9 a day--about two gallons a day. You can stay drunk all day," he said.

On paper, those who get the checks are enrolled in detoxification programs, but the wait to begin treatment can be months long. The required attendance of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings also poses no problem, said Dye: "You can go at 7 a.m., get out at 8 a.m. and get drunk the rest of the day."

Mayor's Task Force

Janet Bayne, operations manager of the new Inn at the Market in the historic Pike Place Market district, not far from Pioneer Square, was a member of the mayor's task force on the homeless. The panel has recommended changes in the welfare policy, control of the sales of the popular "fortified wines," more downtown police, a campaign to discourage giving money to panhandlers and decentralization of services and shelters to break up the concentration of transients downtown.

One homeless man testified, Bayne recalled, that ' "Seattle kind of opened its arms to street people. I got a P.O. box and an ID card and took advantage of everything here. I've been living off you guys for the last two months.' "

That image exasperates Sharon Anderson, administrator for the state's downtown community services office. She hates the term "drunk check," and says she fears that proposed changes pending in the state Legislature will amount to a cure that is worse than the ailment.

"The major problem we have with substance abusers in downtown Seattle is lack of other resources for them. Practically all we can offer them is this check."

Some transients also think that the system is flawed, that it tempts them into backsliding and makes them ripe for robbery at the hands of younger, more aggressive street people.

'Death Every Night'

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