For almost two years organizers and residents of the Nickelsville encampment have been requesting a permanent site in Seattle. City regulations have forced them to move themselves and their scant belongings to a new short-term location every three months. Neighbors who have helped them fold up their tents, then unload equipment and possessions at the next new site (and the next and the next) have witnessed extraordinary endurance and generous mutual assistance among individuals whose strength and patience are understandably stretched thin, if not almost exhausted.
On their website, Nickelsville residents and organizers state that they need a permanent location for a non-moving eco village of up to 1,000," and that they've turned up seventy sites in Seattle that will work." Residents wish to continue running their community independently, as they have in the past. They've been practicing self-government skills since the summer of 2008, when then-mayor Greg Nickels ordered Seattle police to sweep the small homeless camps that had sprung up beneath overpasses and in city parks. In doing so he galvanized advocates for homeless people, united a disorganized gaggle of campers into an activist group, and ensured that his name would live on in the appellation its members chose for a larger, consolidated, more lasting encampment.
The city's new leader is treading more carefully. In August, Mayor Mike McGinn announced the formation of a 10-member citizen review panel tasked with giving him several recommendations about homeless encampments in Seattle. Their conclusions are due early next month.
A permanent, self-governing encampment for a thousand people isn't on the mayor's explicit agenda. Here's what he asked the panel: "Should an encampment be established on a piece of city property for some determined period of time?" Management of the site would be turned over to a third party that would follow strict guidelines set by the city, including the goal of moving residents permanently out of homelessness and the requirement of collecting data showing progress toward that goal.
Proponents of a long-term Nickelsville site point out that the need for temporary housing far exceeds available resources and that a well-run tent city is a cost-effective stopgap. Many who are homeless would rather stay in well-governed encampments than in shelters, for a variety of reasons. Almost all shelters separate, by gender, couples and families with children. Clients typically may not enter a shelter until late afternoon. They may not leave the premises and re-enter once they're inside. They often must sleep beside coughing, sneezing strangers. And in the morning all must leave most shelters, carrying their belongings with them.
Nickelsville, on the other hand, accepts couples and families. Residents have private tents in which they may leave their possessions, and they may come and go as they please as long as they obey prohibitions against weapons, alcohol, street drugs, and stoned or violent behavior in the camp.
One proponent of a permanent site for Nickelsville said that for homeless people who are ill, "Shelters are not a place to go to get better. You leave in the same or worse condition." About transitional housing, the man (who asked to remain anonymous) said that the process of getting it is "Kafkaesque." And an encampment with accountability is better than scattered, unsupervised, vulnerable campers sleeping in parks and under bridges.
If the city has truly committed to the 10-year-plan to end homelessness, said Nathalie Gehrke, a member of University Congregational Church, which currently hosts Nickelsville in its parking lot, "encampments, one of the least expensive forms of immediate housing for people needing shelter, should not be ignored."
Gehrke stated emphatically that Nickelsville should be hosted on city-owned property. "If a piece of property now sitting empty provides a space, then the funds that churches and nonprofits currently spend on making room for the encampment can be used to support the individuals living there.” She added that “congregation members lose touch with residents when an encampment moves.” With residents in a permanent location “we can walk beside them," offering friendship and moral support while individual and family problems are addressed by city social services.
Many who favor providing a long-term city site for Nickelsville say that social services would be far more effective in such a location. "How can case managers work well with residents who are forced to keep moving around?" asked Gehrke. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, of the Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, told me that the residents should be able to stay together long-term because separating them will rob them of "the community of their peers." In an email following our conversation he wrote, "Peer support is critical for all seeking to exit homelessness." But he conceded: "One caveat: They can't be peers with whom they shared drugs or alcohol unless all [are] in recovery."
I came to know several Nickelsville residents in 2008 when I chauffeured groups from the encampment in the University Christian Church parking lot to free showers at Green Lake Community Center. In a Crosscut article last year I described how a young ex-convict, “George,” used Nickelsville as a temporary refuge where he could gather the strength and perspective he needed to return home and rebuild his life. After two years I still spend weekly time with a homeless couple I met in Nickelsville — I'll call them the Smiths — who finally moved into a rented home last month.
While I agree with many of the arguments above, an extended stay in the community of their peers was counterproductive for both George and the Smiths. In the gift economy of the tent city, the income George was trying to save from his handyman labors for an expensive bus ticket back to Florida was depleted every day by borrowers in Nickelsville who knew he was working. The Smiths, recovering from addiction, avoid old acquaintances because the very sight of them triggers a temptation to start using again. Now that the Smiths live in a mixed-income area, their more stable neighbors give them a sense of belonging to mainstream society, and that helps them adjust to a different way of life.
In the face of the current emergency, the ideal of living among more stable neighbors in mixed-income surroundings may regrettably have to be set aside for now. But should the mayor institutionalize what looks like a refugee camp? Does he even have this in mind? As a candidate last year, when answering a question about tent cities McGinn did not mention tents. He did say "I think we need to find something more permanent" and mentioned "adding to [affordable] housing stock." At another campaign event he spoke of creating single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels.
As mayor, McGinn is moving forward with these ideas. He has given the review panel a second question to answer: "Can the current funding, policy, and regulatory environment support a suitable range of low-cost housing options (such as single room occupancy units) for the unsheltered population? If not, how could it change to do so?"
The city would have to undo some drastic things done in the past. Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC), remembers how eagerly Seattle razed or remodeled old SRO hotels between Pioneer Square and the Public Market during the 1970s and early '80s. This gentrification, he wrote in an email, "was encouraged by a series of City administrations through Royer's. The result was the displacement of thousands of marginalized men and women who lived stably in those old hotels."
In a similar spirit, Al Poole, division director of Homelessness Intervention for the city's Department of Human Services, explained in an interview last December that some public regulations impede steps that could lead to the creation of more affordable housing units. "We got cute, saying a home has to be a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, et cetera, complete. Some people are much better off dormitory style. Putting chronically homeless women in isolation, for example, is a recipe for suicide." He added, "We create zoning codes that keep us from doing imaginative things anymore." If we "put units on top of warehouses, people will say there's no bus there. So put a bus there!"
What human beings have done can sometimes be undone. Mayor McGinn seems poised to act at last on the desperate need of Nickelsville residents and others to be housed, even if every one of their wishes won't be satisfied. It's shameful and painful that it is taking so long to create decent, stable places where citizens who are impoverished, and in many cases ill, can live safely and get the services they need for developing job skills, life skills, and better mental and physical health.