Finding Safe Harbor

Lynne Ballew is at home in the sanctuary she created to serve homeless Alaskans

Safe Harbor isn't a homeless shelter or a housing project. It's more simple than that. It's a nonprofit hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, a kind of sanctuary where people coming out of shelters or off the streets can stay while they work some things out. More than a hotel, even, it's a neighborhood.

Safe Harbor offers no social services on site, so people's problems don't define who they are. They must, however, be referred by social service agencies hooked into the Safe Harbor mission.

Even so, they're guests, not clients. They arrive to find chocolates on their pillows, private bathrooms decked out with tub toys and people behind every door going through some of  the same struggles they are.

With capital funding and startup costs behind it, Safe Harbor operates on very little public money—only about 6 percent. The rest comes from rent and the private sector.

Behind the extraordinary network of private and public partners that makes Safe Harbor work, there's a woman, a dog, and a truck: project director Lynne Ballew and her old dog, Emma, and her even older truck, Lefty, a 1988 workhorse of an F-150 Ford with 180,000 miles on it that helps guests move out of Safe Harbor and into places of their own.

For Ballew, Safe Harbor has been a dream more than 25 years in the making. Although many have contributed to the creation of this place, she's the wizard behind the curtain.

She wanted a place for homeless people that wouldn't have the life smothered out of it by government rules and regulations. Above all, she wanted a place that radiated dignity.

“I think of it more as a work of art than a project,” she said. “It has elegance, beauty, and simplicity, all the things that make for a proper work of art.”

Ballew didn't just help create this place and move on. She moved in. When her day is done—which it never really is, because she's always on call—she heads home to her room, a stone's throw from the office, to do the books and other computer work, usually until about three in the morning.

Everything she has ever done for Safe Harbor since the board formed five years ago has been volunteer. This is a woman who moves proverbial mountains, as well as the dressers, beds, and couches people donate.

 What few Safe Harbor guests know is that she's a former philosophy professor with a Ph.D. in classical philology who, if she has any brain power left at the end of the night, pulls out Greek or Latin poetry because, as she says, “you can never read Homer too many times in Greek.”

She has worked on a wide range of community improvement projects in Alaska and other states. Many of those who have seen her in action call her an organizational genius.

Ballew could be making the kind of living that affords a big, fancy house with walk-in closets as big as the room that's now her home. Instead, Safe Harbor is where she wants to be.

“It's the least phony place in the world,” she said.

An activist is born

Ballew grew up disliking the consumer society she saw around her. “I was raised by people who had too much money, and it made them miserable,” she says. “So I learned from very early on that money didn't buy happiness.”

Ballew can't remember a time when she wasn't aware of the suffering of others. Coming of age in the 60s, she did what activists did; hid draft dodgers and got tear-gassed at demonstrations.

She went to college at Vanderbilt, then attended graduate school at Yale, and became a single mother in 1970, when her daughter, Leesie, was born. She was, as she puts it, a “welfare mother” for six months before returning to Vanderbilt and finishing her doctorate in 1975.

In 1977, Ballew was teaching philosophy and social action at Boston College, as well as volunteering at a soup kitchen, when she felt the need for a road trip.

That summer she and seven-year-old Leesie drove up the Alaska Highway. Ballew was smitten with Alaska. She was also moved by what she saw in downtown Anchorage. It didn't take her long to figure out that all the homeless people had nowhere to go but the streets.

She and Leesie returned to Anchorage the following summer to do something about it. Ballew got a job in the Anchorage Community Council office, started making connections, and set about founding Bean's Cafe to be a place where those with nothing could be fed, be warm, be safe, and feel welcome.

Ballew left Alaska in fall 1980 to return to teaching and other pursuits in the Lower 48. After she had a second child, Ballew often had several jobs to support her family. Working for the Federal National Mortgage Association, she helped create the low- and moderate-income housing program now known as Fannie Mae's National Housing Impact Division.

When Ballew returned to Alaska in 1995, she set about making Safe Harbor happen. What she had learned at Fannie Mae was how uncomplicated such a project could be.

“The secret to our success can be summed up by saying that we are not in the social service business; we're in the hospitality business,” she said. “It's so simple.”

In October 2001, Ballew bought a local inn, and the venue, renamed Safe Harbor, opened a month later with 21 units, later expanded to 55, with between 120 to 130 people in residence, about half of them children. Ballew knows every single one by name.

By having the necessities covered, and with Bean's Cafe delivering two meals a day, guests' time and energy are freed up for more important things. That has made a big difference for residents like Angela Murphy, who came to Safe Harbor from a shelter with her four-year-old daughter, MacKenzie. It has allowed her to concentrate on her plan to become a certified nursing assistant.

Or Neil Olson, who came Safe Harbor's way through the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center. After decades of drinking and living on and off the streets, he got sober with the help of willpower and a drug called Naltrexone that curbs the craving.

Just having a key in his pocket took some getting used to, let alone having a real bed. He checked in 11 months ago with nothing but a rucksack. He has since amassed quite a pile for the day he moves out. He even has stuff like bath towels.

“This place is just a godsend for me,” he said.  “This is the longest I've ever been sober. It's a combination of the Naltrexone and this place and that dog,” he says of Ballew's golden lab, Emma, mayor of Safe Harbor. Olson has been a huge help around the place, going on grocery runs for people, helping Ballew pick up and deliver furniture.

“That Lynne, she's strong,” he said. “You wouldn't think so since she's not very big. But she gets on one end of that couch and me on the other and away we go. The more I hang around her, the more she amazes me. I asked her here some time back ‘What's your deal? How come you're here? You don't drink, you don't have problems.' ‘Workaholic,' she said. She is, though. I don't know if she ever quits. I doubt she even does when she's asleep.”

Ballew, unlike guests, who have real beds, sleeps on a platform made of boxed-up books, papers and old grants, with a mattress on top. There's no closet, so she owns only two pairs of jeans. Her room is small, but not too small for the stuff that really matters, like a floor-to-ceiling wall of books.

“Lynne has lived like a graduate student her entire life,” her old friend, Ann Newbury, said.

No matter what anybody thinks, Ballew is quite happy here.

“She worked so hard for this to happen, it was natural for her to move in,” her daughter, Leesie, said. “It's the meaning of her life. It's what gives her the most joy.”

Bolstered by Safe Harbor, most guests like Olson ultimately move into their own housing, but Ballew has no plans to live anywhere else, except maybe in a yurt on a nice piece of land someday.

“I guess I'm just fortunate in that the things I really love and enjoy and I think make life worth living don't cost anything,” she said. “I just love to read. I love baseball. I love being with people and just being hospitable as a way of life."

The travel writer Bruce Chatwin had this piece in his book The Songlines about how nomadic people are happier than settled people because they only take with them what they absolutely need. Their riches are all their stories, their memories, and their interactions with other. I think it's an enormous mistake, a metaphysical mistake and an ethical mistake, to assume that stuff is the key to happiness.”

Ballew's knowledge of Greek philosophy applies, she said: According to the ancient practice of gift-giving, anything that comes to you as a gift has to be passed along, since, as Ballew points out, “An accumulation of wealth is almost an oxymoron. Your wealth is what you give away. And your most sacred and important obligation as a citizen, as a human being is to welcome strangers and give them what you have that they need. Not to do that, literally for the Greeks, was a crime against nature, a crime against the gods. And when you think about it, that's very good social policy.” 

Excerpted with permission of the Anchorage Daily News. Debra McKinney has been a feature writer for ADN for 20 years.

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