Helping Our Neighbors on the Edge

By Jen Muzia, Executive Director

The recent KOMO documentary Seattle is Dying has started a flurry of articles and comments about homelessness in our city. In many Seattle neighborhoods, deepening poverty is obvious. People are sleeping outside, struggling without a home. KOMO’s reporting focused on homeless people grappling with substance use disorders and mental health issues.  

But the truth of homelessness is much more complex. What the KOMO documentary did not highlight was the extreme vulnerability of our neighbors; so many need help and are at risk of becoming homeless. We live in a city where rents have skyrocketed, utility costs are increasing each year, and groceries are expensive. Many long-time residents who are working class or on a fixed income – families, seniors, students – are either forced to leave Seattle or lose their homes.   

Beyond homelessness, there is another kind of poverty that most Seattleites do not see. This is the poverty of our neighbors who make just enough to remain housed but are struggling every day to keep up with mounting bills. In our increasingly expensive city, they live paycheck to paycheck and are often forced to make tough choices between necessities like buying food and paying their rent. Anxiety and stress are their regular companions; they constantly feel vulnerable and scared.

Ballard Food Bank can be a refuge for these people and their families. I was reminded of this last week when an elderly woman came into the food bank. The woman – we’ll call her Donna– was in her mid-70s and well-dressed with an unassuming demeanor. She looked like many older women you might pass in north Seattle.

Donna had come to the food bank because she needed help paying her utility bills. She explained her situation: She and her husband have lived in an apartment on Queen Anne for decades. Her husband is living with a physical disability and the apartment is accessible for him. They need to stay in the apartment for his health, but the rent and other expenses have made it prohibitively expensive.

After scrapping together their Social Security checks and small savings, it simply wasn’t enough to pay the rent and keep the lights on. Donna had heard from a friend that she could get help with her utility bills at the food bank. She was a little embarrassed; Donna had never asked for help like this before.

Our team immediately offered utility assistance but also suggested that she shop at our grocery-style food bank. Because Donna lives in Queen Anne, she hadn’t realized that was an option for her. We signed her up for food bank shopping on the spot, and she left our big blue building with groceries for the week and money to pay her utility bills.

I wish I could tell you that her situation is unique but it’s not. Thousands of people like Donna and her husband live in north Seattle – our neighbors who look like they’re doing fine but can barely make ends meet. One of the many misconceptions about poverty in our city is that it is visible and obvious when, very often, it’s hidden and quiet.

Another misconception is that people who receive assistance take it for granted. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Each day, we hear thanks from clients who use our food bank and Community Resource Hub services. Shortly after Donna visited, we received a hand-written note thanking the food bank team for all we’d done to help her. Our whole team was so touched by her gratitude.

Neighbors like Donna and her husband could easily fall through the cracks and spiral into deeper poverty and even homelessness. That’s why it’s critical for the Ballard Food Bank to help them get through rough patches. It can make a world of difference.