Neil Powers, LGBT activist, housing and homeless advocate, aide to former city councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, and good friend of mine, passed away suddenly on Sept. 11th at the age of 63. His death came as a terrible shock to all of us who had the good fortune to know and work with Neil.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, after living and working in Canada, (a place he loved and spoke about often), Neil took his first job in Seattle in the mid ‘90s. He worked with a small nonprofit providing outreach and assistance to homeless youth in the University District. In the late ‘90s, City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck hired Neil to be one of his legislative assistants. Neil specialized in land use and housing and homelessness, but maintained a deep grasp of city politics in general.

When voicing our concerns on policy, it was Neil we would talk to first in order to influence Peter. Neil, to a fault, was famously gracious, thoughtful and polite with all those he interacted with, whether he agreed with you or not.  “Kind,” “sweet,” “gentle” and “always on time” are words folks used to describe him. How he managed such punctuality, when he literally had never driven a car, hated to fly, and always rode sometimes tardy buses, I do not know. 

Neil was deeply concerned about inequality, the rights of native peoples and the homeless. As a gay man, he worked with and knew many prominent LGBT activists. He regularly contributed funds and in other ways gave his support to causes, especially those addressing homelessness, and backed candidates for local office committed to racial and economic justice.

I’d joke with him that as Peter’s assistant he was like the vice principal who absorbed all the flak, told us “There, there,” and sometimes had to say “no.” In other words, wield the paddle on all us activists — always politely, of course. Neil liked the analogy a lot.

When Councilmember Steinbrueck stepped down in 2007, Neil took these traits to work at United Way, advising and assisting programs serving the homeless. And he never ceased his volunteer work and contributions to programs like Real Change and the Seattle Displacement Coalition.

Over the years there were many get-togethers with him and other friends at Pazzo’s in Eastlake and the Deluxe on Capitol Hill. Neil spent many of his weekends in Vancouver, perhaps his favorite town, where he also had many friends.

About two years ago, Neil packed up and returned to Toronto to pursue a new career in journalism, renting out his small but comfortable co-op apartment on Capitol Hill and leaving his job and his many friends.

Recently he graduated from journalism school and was getting some work for small publications. A fellow classmate, Nicole Royle, wrote to tell me how many friends he’d made in school and how he was “one of the better journalists in the class.” Stories of his appeared in the National Post and the Financial Post, two of Canada’s premier publications. Occasionally, he’d write a piece for our website, Outside City Hall, including interviews with Nikkita Oliver and Bob Hasegawa during their campaigns for mayor.

It was Neil’s roommate in Toronto who informed Peter Steinbrueck (now port commissioner and also a longtime close friend of Neil’s) of his sudden death. At this time, we have only a few details on the underlying cause, though he had recently been ailing.

Only four days before he died, Neil called me from Toronto to alert me that he’d grown weak and had lost weight. I was concerned, but he assured me he was seeing a doctor and was waiting to hear back on the results of tests.

Neil did not seem outwardly concerned. His longstanding and chronic laryngitis obviously had not improved, something he’d been coping with for the last two or three years, so it was a little hard to hear him. I encouraged him to come back to Seattle, where he had tons of support, but he assured me he had support where he was and would keep me posted when he learned his test results.

At the end of our conversation he seemed to go out of his way to tell me how much he cared for me and our work and everyone back in Seattle. In retrospect, I think he knew and was not telling me how bad things were. That would be like him to downplay the gravity of it.

I’ve felt sad to the core that someone with still so much life and so many adventures ahead had it all cut short. He is survived only by a brother from “back East” now taking care of his affairs.

As Dylan Thomas said, Neil certainly did “not go gentle into that good night.” For those of us who knew him and the causes he cared about, and how he cared for the future of this city, he left an indelible mark, and we’ll always remember him.

John V. Fox and Carolee Colter are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a low-income housing organization.