Supporters of the homeless advocacy group SHARE/WHEEL, expressing dismay that the city wants it to move the tent encampment Nickelsville off the city-owed South Seattle location where it has been illegally squatting for the past two years, showed up en masse at city council chambers yesterday to protest the move, saying it would put more than 100 people out in the cold. (The city wants to sell the land to Food Lifeline for a new food-distribution center).
Seven council members wrote a letter earlier this week calling the encampment, which has no electricity or running water and has frequently been flooded and plagued by rats, a "public health and safety" hazard and pledging to dedicate $500,000 in city money to find Nickelsville residents new places to live.
Nickelsville supporters pointed out that the tent encampment is one of the only living options in the city for homeless people with families or pets. And they said the encampment is already past capacity.
"I am ashamed when I have to tell another homeless person, 'I'm sorry, you can't stay here; we're full," said Nickelsville resident Jarvis Capucion, who said he turns away 30 or more people every week. Nickelsville resident Trace de Garmo said 23 homeless people have already died on the streets in Seattle, from violence or exposure, this year, "so we're on track to exceed" last year's 34 deaths. "Without shelter, people die. That's a fact."
Others, however, were skeptical of SHARE's tactics, which, in the past, have included requiring residents to show up at protests (and face potential arrest) or lose their beds at SHARE's shelters. One critic said she opposed SHARE because they "have all these rules that don’t make any sense. They don’t allow services ... SHARE uses bus tickets and shelter as a manipulation. People have been required to attend protests that they did not want to that interfered with work and schooling." Her comments prompted many in the audience to laugh and shout her down.
After public comments, most of the pro-Nickelsville crowd got up and left for a "die-in" on the steps of City Hall—odd timing for the action if they wanted to hear what council members had to say in response to their comments.
"I really wish the audience we had the audience that was here because I think they would like to hear this conversation," council member Sally Bagshaw said. " I do think what our nickelsville friends have created is community I don’t want to udnerstimate that. We don’t want people to be out in the cold."
Bagshaw suggested expanding the legislation so that nonprofit groups like the Low-Income Housing Institute could host tent cities, something LIHI director Sharon Lee had suggested, in her public comments, that she'd be willing to do.
Council members who had previously expressed opposition to tent cities on the grounds that they constitute unsafe, substandard housing, seemed more open yesterday to allowing more tent cities, as council member Nick Licata and Mayor Mike McGinn have proposed, perhaps on private non-residential or nonprofit-owned land. (Currently, they're allowed on city-owned and religious properties). SHARE opposes that legislation because it only allows Tent Cities on non-residential properties; SHARE believes they should be allowed in residentially-zoned land as well.
Ultimately, the committee voted unanimously to move forward with two different options that could ultimately allow tent cities on privately owned land, nonprofit-owned land, city-owned land, or land owned by religious organizations, and to abandon another option that would allow Nickelsville to stay at its current location (summary here) the next public hearing will be June 25.