Nickelsville split into multiple sites last year, when the city of Seattle evicted the organized tent encampment from city-owned land on West Marginal Way near the Duwamish River.
After the eviction, the encampment for homeless people settled on three different sites in Seattle’s Central District and Skyway. One of the branches has since closed because of a conflict between residents and Nickelsville organizers.
On Aug. 31, the two remaining encampments are coming together again on a sloping greenbelt of undeveloped land on South Dearborn Street, near where Interstate 5 and Interstate 90 intersect.
Nickelodeons, as residents describe themselves, are eager to move onto this new property and finally unify the camp after a year of operating on multiple properties.
“We’re a little stronger and a little more stable together,” said Matt Samek, 52, who lives at the Nickelsville located on South Jackson Street, across from Washington Middle School and next to the Low Income Housing Institute’s Ernestine Anderson Place.
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church will host the reunified encampment. To operate in Seattle, tent cities need a religious organization to host them. Encampments can stay on a single piece of property for six months, with the possibility of a six-month extension.
The camp has relocated about 20 times since it formed in 2008, when a group of homeless people and their allies first occupied city-owned land at the corner of West Marginal Way Southwest and Highland Park Way Southwest.
The encampment has operated on public land, church property and inside of Lake City’s former Fire Station 39 for a winter.
The encampment spent more than two years on the site at West Marginal Way before the Seattle City Council called for the encampment to leave the property. The city council funded Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission with $500,000 to help Nickelodeons move into supportive housing. Despite the outreach efforts, some 90 people moved into three campsites.
Now they are moving about a dozen wooden structures and many more tents from encampments on South Jackson Street and Union Street to a single stretch of land managed by Coho Real Estate Group on South Dearborn Street.
“This one is going to be a tough move,” said Victor Deran, 63, who lives at the Jackson Street site.
The undeveloped property slopes down toward Dearborn Street at an angle. Nickelodeons will need to settle tents and structures on flatter terraces scattered around the property.
“We have to work with what we have,” said Peggy Hotes, a liaison between Nickelsville and its sponsoring organization, Jam for Justice. “There’s enough patches of relatively flat land that we felt like we could get structures there.”
Over the past year, Nickelodeons and their supporters have worked with the city of Seattle to find a permanent home for the encampment. The talks are ongoing, and the two sites were fast approaching the deadline for how long they can stay where they were.
“We’ve been asking the city for public land for quite a while,” said Heather Dobson, 33, who lives at the Union Street site. “It hasn’t produced the results that we’d like to see. We really would prefer to use public land.”
Nickelsville is closer to that goal than a year ago, when the Seattle City Council voted down an effort to regulate and legalize encampments to operate on public property.
Now, public officials are beginning to see organized tent encampments as part of the spectrum of solutions to homelessness. In June, the King County Committee to End Homelessness listed tent encampments as one of several “interim survival mechanisms.”
Nickelodeons met with some of their new Dearborn neighbors at Ernestine Anderson Place on Aug. 26 to answer any questions neighbors have about the encampment.
Businesses and organizations contacted by Real Change near the Jackson Street site had no complaints about hosting the site in their neighborhood.
“They’re no different than any other neighbor,” said Tammie Baker, clinical director at Community House, a mental health drop-in and counseling center a block east of the Jackson Street Nickelsville. “We’ve not noticed anything different with them being there. It’s always clean down there.”
Steven Olsen, pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, hosted the Union Street encampment near his parish for the last year.
“I have seen that Nickelsville’s presence makes the neighborhood more secure,” Olsen said. “They keep an eye on their own community, but they also look out for the larger community.”
[Note: This site was withdrawn for safety concerns.]