Nickelsville is scheduled for clearance in less than a week
The Nickelsville site is scheduled for clearance in less than a week. The move could have been a solution to a number of problems that need resolution. Our city could have looked the tent city issue squarely in the eye and turned a negative into a positive. That didn’t happen.
And so, we are left with some very messy realities. Nickelsville is bigger and more chaotic than ever. The outreach workers from Union Gospel Mission, with their $500,000 allocated by the Seattle City Council, have found placements for a minority of campers. UGM’s table at Nickelsville is viewed as enemy territory, and most campers don’t want to be seen talking to folks staffing it.
This is what happens when solutions are imposed without consultation. Wrong approach. Wrong messengers. Wrong logic. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
While I’m happy for whoever gets housing out of this, these placements have much less to do with rational prioritization and service delivery than stupid and cowardly politics: $500,000 isn’t enough money to paper over the unmet need on our streets. And instead of shrinking, Nickelsville has only grown.
This was predictable. We know that shelter demand exceeds supply. The 2013 One Night Count revealed that for every two homeless people living in the overcrowded emergency shelter system, at least one more lives outside. This is why places like Nickelsville exist.
The encampment, even with all of its shortcomings, is a solution to this larger problem, and should not be confused with the problem itself. The city council’s failure to appreciate this is making things worse.
When I visited last week, I was a bit shocked at the camp’s vastness. Current estimates are that Nickelsville is home to around 175 people each night (see story on page 3). People sleep in structures that range from tool shed-sized cottages to tents to tarps spread over pallet frames.
There is little of the tidy structure found at church-hosted tent city sites. This overgrown and under-tended encampment is the red-headed stepchild of tent cities. Democratic processes are frayed and lack legitimacy. The camp is broke and in debt, and local community support has deeply eroded. With the numbers of campers growing, the cupboards are mostly bare.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are many ways that the lives of homeless people could be immediately and cost-effectively improved, with outcomes that would bring relief for everyone.
Encampment models that encourage access to services and have structures of community support and accountability could be legitimated and encouraged.
Safe zones for car campers could provide respite from fines and harassment of this growing group of economic refugees and provide a means to assess the unmet need.
Emergency shelter contracts could be extended to allow daytime services and activities, so that our city’s most desperately poor aren’t turned out to the streets at 6 a.m. with nothing to do but wait.
The $20 million that state legislators have cut from homeless, mental health and drug treatment services over the past four years could be restored. Lawmakers need to understand that these lives have value and that these programs save more money than they cost.
But none of this is likely to happen anytime soon. Policymakers, for the most part, have their heads in the sand, and prefer to believe the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness is somehow working. The failure that Nickelsville represents is a sign that it’s time to reassess.
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