Director’s Corner: the future of Nickelsville
Despite the best efforts of government and the non-profit sector to keep up with homelessness, emergency shelter or transitional housing is only available in Seattle to around two of every three people in need. For nearly two decades, several self-managed homeless encampments have been on the move, meeting the safety and survival needs of the unsheltered.
Nickelsville, which has moved 15 times in two and a half years to locations both public (illegal) and private (less so), was launched under the last mayor’s administration to create a place where homeless campers can exist free of legal harassment. They have survived two rounds of arrests and numerous threats of fines. They offer a safe alternative to homeless campers.
Last fall, the Mayor took a bold step toward reality by convening a Citizen Review Panel of leading homeless advocates and service providers to advise the city on the issue of a sanctioned homeless encampment. The panel unanimously concluded, “providing unsheltered individuals access to a safe alternative is humane and important,” and recommended the city “sanction and offer available property to a self-governed encampment to help meet the immediate survival and safety needs of individuals in our community who have no access to safe shelter.”
While there are many advocates who don’t like the idea of tents, the evidence that Nickelsville and the Tent Cities help fill a gaping hole in the continuum of care is incontrovertible. Despite our differences, agreement came surprisingly easily. Things since then have been a bit harder.
While the Mayor’s office has supported the recommendations by identifying a workable site and granting Nickelsville a temporary home at Lake City Fire House, there remain significant roadblocks to a sanctioned encampment. A land use change determination must go through city council, as must the approval of any release of funds.
City councilmembers remain far from sold. While the approval process of the new site could begin immediately, Council President Richard Conlin has chosen to use the environmental impact process to dodge the issue of site approval and greatly delay the decision. Without the intervention of Councilmember Licata, who rescued the possibility of a council funding discussion, the Mayor’s proposal would have been altogether dead on arrival.
Meanwhile, Council President Conlin has been clear in his belief that tents are unacceptable. The majority of the council agrees. Councilmembers Bagshaw and Clark have taken the lead on steering the debate toward a different direction entirely. Only a determined and unified effort can widen the small opening Licata has created—the more humane approach to campers that the panel recommended.
The question has never been whether or not folks will live in tents. That’s reality, like it or not. It is whether the city will allow campers to live in conditions of safety and dignity or impose unnecessary hardship. The homeless leaders of Nickelsville and our local tent cities forced the issue, and advocates, in a rare moment of radical truth telling, stood behind them.
Now is the time to stand by that vision. This means revisiting the panel’s original recommendation for a low-cost alternative that relies on Nickelsville’s proven capacity for effective self-management. It means resisting councilmembers’ attempts to divide and conquer with funding for uncontroversial alternatives that dodge the reality of urban camping. It means being flexible and creative about other solutions.
The entire homeless advocacy community has, for once, backed the struggles of homeless people themselves. That is no small thing, but we’re not done yet. The hard part still lies ahead.
REAL CHANGE READERS: Nickelsville has done a great job of providing a much needed alternative to the inadequate shelter space we have now. That being said, to say that Nickelsville has a “proven capacity for effective self-management” is typical of what we have been hearing for years from the homeless advocacy community. It’s time we listen to the people Nickelsville serves, and I don’t mean the people who are currently living there who have a vested interest in staying on the “right” side of the powers that be. The dirty little secret everyone I talk to seems to know is that there is something not quite right with the self management model being used at Nickelsville. Even people in the advocacy community know this. Why isn’t there more outrage about this? Are we afraid Nickelsville willl go away completely and we know we need them so we are willing to sacrifice our most vulnerable to house the ones that know how to survive around that system? There is something wrong at Nickelsville and until we all speak up and start shedding light on that situation we are no longer protecting our most vulnerable, we are protecting ourselves.
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