When Jeff Bouck was a teenager, his father used to say, “There but for the grace of God go I,” every time they drove past the Ballard Bridge and saw people sleeping underneath.
“He was letting me know that you’re always that close to being right there,” Jeff told Real Change in January 2009.
Jeff passed away shortly after and his body was found under the Ballard Bridge, according to those who knew him. He was 46.
Although the cause of Jeff’s death was unknown friends say he suffered from health problems and had been sleeping outdoors for years.
Jeff grew up on Queen Anne Hill. For 22 years he was married to Karen Pedersen, who passed away in November 2011. Both were Real Change vendors. Jeff and Karen had a daughter, who had been attending Arizona State University.
The son of a sea captain, Jeff worked on fishing boats. While netting salmon in Sandpoint, Alaska, Jeff fell overboard, cracked his back on the side rail, then had to be fished out of the net.
He herniated two discs in his back. It took nearly a year to recover from the accident, which left Jeff no longer fit to haul nets. At 41, Jeff — functionally disabled and out of a job — became homeless.
A friend and longtime vendor told him about Real Change, so he decided to give it a try. He often sold at Trader Joe’s on Queen Anne. Selling the paper worked out for him, he said, because it was like a business.
Mat Vlasak, a crew member at Trader Joe’s, said Jeff got along well with customers and store staff.
“It was one of the highlights of my day to come in and see Jeff hanging out in front,” Vlasak said. “We’d shoot the breeze.”
Jeff was always looking out for others, Vlasak said. Once, when the wind blew milk crates all over the alley, Jeff pitched in to help Vlasak clean them up, saying fishermen believe in teamwork.
When he saw Vlasak hurrying during a busy period at the store, Jeff, an avid sports fan, told Vlasak he reminded him of former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, the way he scrambled to get things done.
Jeff was open about his struggles with alcohol. He told Rex Hohlbein of Facing Homelessness that drinking was a way of life in the fishing industry.
In the spring of 2013, Jeff was referred to Hohlbein’s Facebook page, Homeless in Seattle to see if the community could help him with scabies, the itchy skin disease that was making his life miserable. Through Homeless in Seattle, a number of people offered clean clothes and words of encouragement, and Jeff got treatment at a clinic in Ballard.
At the Ballard Food Bank, Jeff was a regular. He showed up to pick up his mail and some food.
“He was a very kind man, and gentle, and he’d been coming here for years,” said Mary Witter, who works at the food bank.
After his death, Jeff’s friends, many of them homeless, too, set up a small memorial on a pillar under the north side of the bridge.
“He was highly regarded by the people who sleep under there,” Witter said.