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

Times Staff Writer

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'

Bill Redwine ("That's a heck of a name for an alcoholic") has hung around here for 20 years, and says he has been knocked out "dozens of times" for his money. "There's some pretty bad people. It's death every night out here."

Police Maj. Michael Brasfield acknowledged that most acts of violence in Pioneer Square take place between street people, that shoppers and diners there report broken car windows and the like. Yet, "even if you cross the street just to avoid (transients) because 'I don't want to have potential hassles,' you've kind of surrendered a little bit . . . out of fear," he says.

The irony of Pioneer Square's stated development goal, "a variety of life styles," is that the more prosperous it became, the more out of place the transients seemed against the backdrop of scrubbed brick facades and expensively appointed shop windows.

For Sally Wilma of Pioneer Square Properties, whose apartments command top rents, the transients are "a nuisance. Every day you have to hose down the sidewalks, and every day you have to go down alleys and make sure no one's sleeping in doorways . . . it's real messy."

There are still several missions in Pioneer Square. One, the Bread of Life, was once a brothel. The madam's name, Matilda Winehill, remains carved above the door, according to the mission director, Tym Goodwin. The missions are criticized as "objectionable attractions," he says, because of the scores of men who queue up every afternoon for a $2 bed, dinner, breakfast, shower and prayers--Bible and razor included.

Collection of Litter

John Chaney, Pioneer Square coordinator of preservation, displays on a file cabinet his whimsical collection of cheap wine bottles picked up in the square. Since the city put in pocket parks, brick-cobbled streets and antique lighting, more than $150 million in private money has come in to pay for restoration of the ornate sandstone buildings that went up after a fire started in a cabinet maker's spilled glue burned out the heart of Seattle in 1889.

At the Inn at the Market, Bayne gets calls from former Seattle residents who say: "I spent my whole life trying to get off First Avenue, and here I am trying to make reservations in your hotel."

With so much invested, merchants are keeping one worried eye on the transients and the other on the tourists, many of whom are put off by the sight of people sprawling in the doorways of shops and restaurants.

At the quaint Pike Place Market, above the city's battered docks and wharves, visitors scurry past homeless men in blankets who line the benches like starlings on a telephone wire. The men stretch out a hand but do not bestir themselves on a cold afternoon.

"If there's somebody lying in the street, (market security guards) say, 'Get up and get on your way,' " Bayne said. "They don't tolerate it here."

Tattoo Artist's View

At Custom Tattoo, two doors from the House of Croissant, Jack Hunt's tattoo needle isn't as busy as it was in the days when sailors and loggers used to drift in and out of cheap hotels long since closed or renovated.

"I was thinking of putting up a big poster: 'Help the street people . . . just shoot 'em.' "

The tattoo trade is off about 40%, he said. "They took all the bars out, the girlie joints, all the carnival atmosphere. All you got at night is (guys) trying to mug people, and, daytime, these stores selling peanut butter and jam."

He mashed a cigarette dead into an ashtray and shook his head:

"Just look what they've done to Pioneer Square. When I was a kid, that was the heart of Skid Row."

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