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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

June 30, 2012 at 8:11 PM

Less power to the homeless? Seattle Center locks up public outlets

Like so many of us, Ron Kenyon spends hours a day in front of a laptop. He reads the news, stays in touch with friends and taps out the occasional copy editing job or KenKen puzzle on his old but trusty Compaq Presario C502US. But you won’t find him browsing away at an office, a coffee shop or in some cozy corner of his living room.

Ron Kenyon, left, and Michael Dare say they do not agree with the decision by Seattle Center to place padlocked covers on electrical outlets throughout the Center. The two, who say they are homeless, have come to depend on the outlets to power their devices. (Photo by John Lok / The Seattle Times)

You’d never guess it unless he told you, but Kenyon is homeless.

The eloquent, friendly 63-year-old with a trim white beard and a voice like your favorite grandpa has become a fixture at the tables on the third-floor balcony of Seattle Center’s Center House, now known as the Armory. That’s where he and a small group of homeless regulars have for years had unrestricted access to the building’s dozens of electrical outlets, enabling them to charge their phones and surf the Web with the Center’s free Wi-Fi.

Until a few weeks ago, when the restrictions came.

Sleek, locked covers began to appear on just about every outlet in the building in June. Now Kenyon is fighting to get the power back — not just for him or his community, but for all the Center’s visitors.

It’s another reminder that the more connected we become, the more unfettered access to electricity becomes a necessity — for everyone — rather than a perk.

“Unlike most things here that get discussed with stakeholders, this was kind of thrown at us,” Kenyon said as he and his friend Michael Dare gave me a tour of the plugged-up outlets on the third floor.

Kenyon heard that cost factored into the decision when he and Dare discussed the change with Seattle Center officials June 14. But the building has never been a laptop hot spot, and the savings will be tiny. A handful at most use the outlets at any given time — when they’re not being used for official Center programming — and rarely for long.

At Seattle’s small commercial rate, charging a typical phone two hours every day uses 15 cents of electricity in an entire year, while running a 70-watt laptop for just as long costs $3.53 — about a penny a day.

A bigger reason for the change, the official reason, is about the Armory itself. Once a quiet common area that came alive for cultural events, it’s seeing more action as popular food vendors like MOD Pizza and Pie open their doors on the ground floor as part of a plan to transform the space into a buzzing dining destination.

That means encouraging high table turnover in the common dining areas, upstairs and down, said Center spokeswoman Deborah Daoust. Letting people plug in and stay awhile is not part of that plan. Even if that means taking away something at least one small group of regulars had come to rely on.

One of the padlocked electrical outlets at the Armory at Seattle Center. (Photo by John Lok / The Seattle Times)

“It’s tricky when you’re Seattle Center, because we serve all kinds of different publics,” Daoust said. “A lot of times we make decisions that someone’s not happy with.”

If Seattle Center never quite meant to provide power as a free utility, there are of course several spaces around the city that do — namely the Seattle Public Library and its 26 branches. Kenyon sometimes goes to the Ballard branch. But for several reasons, the Center suits him best.

Kenyon is one of the Center’s power superusers, but he’s seen others grateful to find it. Like Chad Lupkes, who spends a few hours working on his laptop when his son takes acting classes at Seattle Children’s Theater. Or Dave Burrill, who makes slideshows from photos of the weeklong kids’ mission trips he leads every year.

And, I guess, me, when I filed an online story on Seattle’s hottest day there three years ago and said hello to a plugged-in group of homeless men I thought I’d never see again.

I know I’m not the only one who makes more stops at coffee shops with Wi-Fi and outlets, or lets out a sigh of relief when I spot a free socket at my gate at Sea-Tac Airport.

Should the city do more to provide free power at Seattle Center or anywhere else? Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, believes the city must give free or subsidized power to those who can’t afford it, and that now is as good a time as any to ask if it’s doing that enough.

“It’s not just an issue of convenience for consumers but an issue of necessity for the less fortunate,” Harrell said. “It should be a conversation.”

Seattle Center is scheduling a public meeting about all its changes soon. Kenyon will be there. To him, this issue has always come down to power — but not just the electrical kind.

Either way, he doesn’t want to lose it.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or subscribe to her on Facebook.

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