Community & Editorial
Nickelsville goes inside
The Mayor takes a bold step for homeless campers. Will Council follow?
On Monday, Nov. 15, the homeless encampment known as Nickelsville moved for the next to last time to a firehouse in Lake City owned by the City of Seattle. Sometime next spring, Nickelsville will settle into a lot in Sodo, with a city-constructed facility featuring showers, storage lockers, eating space, and an office where campers will be connected with the services that they need to move on.
This latest move came 784 days, fourteen relocations, and two mass arrests after that first morning in September 2008, when, in the hours before dawn, homeless people and their supporters set up 150 pink dome tents in a dew-soaked West Seattle field.
Nickelsville sprang up one year after Real Change broke the story that the City of Seattle, under the direction of Mayor Greg Nickels, had covertly adopted a zero-tolerance policy on survival camping. Crews were appearing in greenbelts, slashing tents with machetes, confiscating belongings, and threatening campers with arrest. For months, we were unable to get anyone to acknowledge this was city policy.
Eventually, an email obtained through public disclosure confirmed what we suspected. Survival camping in Seattle had been quietly outlawed, and the City had targeted around a dozen areas for regular “clean-up.” In the absence of any guidelines, the gloves were off and camps were being destroyed without accountability or warning.
The fight against campsite clearances was long and bitter. There was a lopsided public hearing where testimony against the policies ran roughly 70-0. We witnessed a city-orchestrated clean-up in Queen Anne, where Parks employees garbed in white paper over-garments, heavy boots, gloves, and gas masks fought the infection of homeless camps for the cameras. A media analysis by a group of academics at the University of Washington would later describe the City public relations strategy as “a narrative of filth and contagion.”
We camped out in front of City Hall time and again, blocked the street with people and tents, and forced the City to arrest us. And we supported Nickelsville, because the shelters were full, and people on the streets needed somewhere safe to go.
Through it all, the Nickels administration staunchly refused to meet with advocates to discuss their policy. They bullied non-profit and church supporters of Nickelsville with threats of fines, and honored their own protocols for encampment removal and storage of possessions mostly in the breach. Mayor Greg Nickels declared that residents of Nickelsville were not truly homeless, but were advocates, who could retreat to their homes and warm beds at will.
With the heavily-publicized arrest of homeless people and their advocates at City Hall and the establishment of Nickelsville a few months later, the Mayor’s office finally lost control of the spin. The media no longer obediently reproduced city press releases about feces, hypodermic needles, and tonnages of filth and garbage. They started talking to homeless people instead.
Greg Nickels became one of the most unpopular mayors in Seattle history, and was shut out of his re-election bid during the primary.
The 2010 One Night Count, conducted on a freezing night near the end of January, found 1,986 people surviving outdoors in the pre-dawn hours. It was an all time high. The Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness, by which Mayor Nickels claimed compassion while his administration engaged in repression, was not working. The plan was at best necessary but not sufficient.
Shortly after Mayor McGinn took office, the city’s zero-tolerance of survival camping died a quiet death. The regularly-scheduled homeless sweeps ended, and camps that drew little to no complaint were left alone. The infamous Nickels loophole in the encampments protocols, which said sites that had been regularly cleared no longer merited outreach or notification before confiscating tents and property, was closed.
Meanwhile, the economy tanked, and along with it the illusion that we were winning against homelessness. With human misery on the rise and the resources for its mitigation in decline, a reassessment was in order. The Mayor convened a high level of homeless advocates to advise on the immediate and pending crisis.
In a little more than a month, the panel’s unanimous recommendations were in: Support Nickelsville with a permanent site, and if homeless campers aren’t bothering anyone, leave them alone. Spurred by the approach of winter, the Mayor’s office found both temporary and long-term sites for the camp.
Nickelsville now sits on city property, with city permission and city support. The shift represents more than a haven for 75-100 people. The establishment of a permanent Nickelsville site is evidence that finally, after years of denial, the city has come to grips with ugly reality. The deluge of homelessness has outpaced our ability to keep up, and in this time of universal deficit budgets, this is unlikely to change soon.
In recognizing this, we have chosen to help instead of hurt those whom the system has failed. We have stopped letting ideals of excellence—the notion that “tents are no solution and people need housing”—get in the way of good. Survival camping and an overwhelmed shelter system are the reality. Deal with it.
Not everybody gets it. A majority of City Council members—a body that seldom misses an opportunity to express hostility toward the new mayor—still believe that the Ten Year Plan is answer enough.
Councilmember Conlin, speaking for the majority, was quoted this week in Publicola: “I don’t think we should accept the idea that people are doomed to be homeless and live in tents. I don’t see why, in a society with as many resources as ours has, that that should be allowed.”
What part of one-thousand-nine-hundred-eighty-six does he not understand?
The establishment of Nickelsville as a city-sanctioned homeless encampment is not the conclusion of this fight; it is a new beginning. Conlin is almost right. The idea that homeless people are doomed to be in tents should not be allowed. Homelessness in America represents a massive failure of moral imagination.
But they are in tents. It’s a fact. Deal with it. To not allow tents, under present circumstances, is to compound the failure. Over the coming months, as we push for the change we desperately need, we must help Seattle’s City Council come to grips with the obvious.
Amazing article…amazing story!! Out with ignorance, non-compassionate thoughts in with living, breathing compassion and LIFE!!!
Thank you so much Timothy and Mayor McGinn for your strong, compassionate hearts and in revealing the truths that are not going away.
Hooray, for common sense.
May the council members be booed out if they can’t see the reality and want to stay in denial.
Nickelodians deserve badges of courage for hanging in there. They are not perfect people, they are like you and me, though the extrodinary circumstances could happen to anyone. They are alive still after all their troubles, and they are not over, but this has been an extraordinary fight.
I’m so glad for all of them to have this shelter for the cold winter. This is also a success for the new mayor. You Rock!!
Let us also remember the others who are still out there.
With the state scheduled to terminate Medicaid prescription drugs March 1st, we can expect a large percentage of those with mental illness who cannot keep it together in their subsidized apartments to become homeless by summer or fall.
More people will go broke trying to pay their emergency medical bills and will also lose their housing. Over 70,000 potential foreclosures in WA state will move forward, families will live with friends or in their cars for awhile and some will end up on the streets. It’s only going to get worse.
Many of us in Lake City appreciate the opportunity to host Nickelsville. I suggest it be called Tarp City.
Tim, I have never disagreed with you more on the current administration (whom I do support). Sweeps still happen, regularly cleared sites which have been posted by the city are still being swept without following any of the protocols, and to many in the downtown area, feelings of city and police hostility have never been higher.
I look forward to seeing if there’s a decrease in the number people sleeping outside in the downtown area. We’ve never seen so few on the streets at night downtown. From those sleeping outside we’ve spoken with, the overwhelming response is that they have never experienced such a heightened state of police aggression and force in driving people out of the downtown area and into the greenbelts and outer lying areas of Seattle.
Excuse me, the first sentence of the second paragraph should read: I look forward to seeing in the One Night Count if there
I’m doing an article for the UW on Nickelsville, but was wondering if anyone could help me with some info…when was the other mass arrest? Besides Queen Anne, were there any other sweeps around this time?
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