Some time after noon on Fri., Oct. 10, James Kooken saw them: the fuchsia tents. People were pitching tents in the parking lot of University Christian Church.
For the past couple of months, give or take an evening here and there, Kooken, 24, had sought refuge right outside the church's wooden door. But last Friday, while he watched the flurry of activity in the nearby lot, a thought struck him: Maybe he didn't have to go it alone anymore. For 12 years -- half his life -- he's been homeless and mostly by himself. But then the tents came. "So I thought it was a good opportunity in Seattle to get in and out of the rain," says Kooken.
Kooken walked over to the parking lot, set on the corner of 15th Ave. NE and NE 50th St. He asked if he could have a tent. Someone told him yes. And as Kooken moved into a brightly colored dome, all around him, Nickelsville residents settled in for what it hopes will be a long stay.
Maybe the third time will prove the charm. Since its inception, Nickelsville -- set up, organizers say, to bring attention to a lack of affordable housing and adequate shelter, as well as Mayor Nickels' relentless campaign of sweeping homeless encampments -- has moved three times.
The community of tents and dwellers first pitched stakes in south Seattle on Sept. 22, on city-owned property. Threatened with criminal trespass, some residents, called Nickelodeons, moved to a nearby parking lot on Sept. 26, as cops led away 22 Nickelodeons. That parking lot happens to be owned by the state, and Gov. Chris Gregoire, on the day of the arrests, granted Nickelsville safe haven there until Oct. 1. Gifted a two-day extension, Nickelsville then headed north, to Daybreak Star Center, situated in Discovery Park. But United Indians of All Tribes, which leases the parcel from the city, only agreed to host the camp for a week, from Oct. 3 to Oct. 10. As another eviction loomed, Nickelodeons scrambled to find a new place. Then the invitation came from University Christian Church.
Janetta Cravens Boyd, senior minister of the church, says the invite came after deep thought and many prayers, along with discussions with church leaders. When it became apparent the church could provide, in the form of the parking lot, what was needed, she says it welcomed Nickelsville. "It was the right kind of hospitality at this time," says Cravens Boyd.
The church agreed to share its space, she says, not because of encampment organizers' political positions, but because the people in Nickelsville are homeless. The offer, however, carries at least one minor consequence: It will cause the majority of car drivers who use the lot -- anyone from parents dropping off kids at day care, to UW students, to some 80 church-goers -- to make do with only 15 open spaces, or find parking elsewhere. "There's an irony in this situation of which we're well aware," she says.
With its present location, right on a U-District arterial street, Nickelsville is hard to miss. By Sun., Oct. 12, nearly 70 tents -- less than half the 160 or so tents at the original site -- occupied a majority of the sloping asphalt lot, some of the domes draped in bright blue tarps. In the southeastern corner stood four Honey Buckets, doors slamming from regular use. Playing on a boom box set near an empty tent, Bobby Brown sang, "Everybody's talkin' all this stuff about me/Why don't they just let me live?" Pedestrians, strolling on the sidewalks or in an alley directly east, stopped and stared.
Yet tents and gawkers notwithstanding, Nickelsville's fate remains uncertain. On the Oct. 13 edition of the radio program "Weekday," which airs on KUOW, a listener and radio host Steve Scher questioned the mayor about Nickelsville.
Nickels said he has offered to meet with the church council and funders of shelter services, but while people are camping illegally, whether on public or private property, he asserted his office would not engage directly with encampment organizers. (When asked what he felt about the name Nickelsville, Nickels chuckled.) Asked by Scher if he'd allow the camp to remain in the church parking lot or whether he had a timeframe for its removal, Nickels replied, "We have not yet set a timeframe. We will. We need to go over what the status of this is on church property."
Even while some Nickelodeons talk wistfully of the encampment staying in the lot until December, maybe even January, Cravens Boyd confesses that may not be the case. "We don't know if we'll be able to promise that," she admits. She notes the church, which has been in contact with the mayor's office, is investigating the legal ramifications of its hospitality.
Coupled with the site's potentially imperiled future, its organizers and residents may also find themselves taking hits to the wallet. That's because while Nickelodeons were camped out at Daybreak Star, which maintains specific permits to allow temporary encampments, the Department of Planning and Development posted a notice of violation. The Oct. 3 notice named a number of organizations and individuals -- among them, SHARE and WHEEL, staff of Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, ROOTS, and "John Doe(s) and Jane Doe(s) who are otherwise responsible for this violation" -- and stated that each could face daily fines of $150 for the first 10 days of noncompliance, increasing to $500 each day thereafter. "This serves," the violation reads, "as the only and final notice to you for any future encampments under city's encampment protocol."
David Bloom, a board member of ROOTS, a youth shelter in the U-District, is one of the 10 parties named in the land-use code violation. His role, he says, amounted to "rendering assistance, being there, showing up, hanging out, saying 'good job.'" He also helped start talks with the governor's office over moving the camp to state land.
"The question this [citation] raises is, are people guilty for rendering support to these people? Is that what it's come to?" says Bloom. "It has to be the single most bizarre response from a public agency that I've encountered."
But Kooken, at the moment, is more concerned with lunchtime, as he examines food supplies in Nickelsville's makeshift kitchen, housed under an open-sided tent: peanut butter, jelly, bread, a block of orange cheese. He opts for the contents of a tray of noodles and vegetables, leftovers from a Korean wedding someone donated. He fills his bowl.
Just on the other side of the eastern alley, a yellow banner hangs from an apartment building. "NEED HOUSING!" it screams, followed by a website and a phone number. What if one of those apartments could be had for $25 a month? Would Kooken -- who says he regularly visits Labor Works, the staffing agency, looking for employment -- rather live there than out in a tent? With fork in hand, he says, "If I had the opportunity to get inside, I'd take it."
But then Nickelsville arrived. Surrounded by others, he believes it'll be easier to overcome the challenges of living on the street. "People feel like they can do it themselves," he says. But they can't, he adds. "Not all the time."
And he shovels a forkful of noodles in his mouth, enjoying a meal someone left for him and the others, to share.