A management conflict over the “tiny house” homeless encampments, including the “Northlake Village” presently occupying the Seattle City Light land across from Ivar’s in Wallingford, has exploded over the past week, with the residents padlocking themselves in today and barring access to LIHI and City of Seattle staff from entering.
First, background is in order, accurately provided by Nickelsville’s own history page:
Nickelsville came about in response to the sweeps of encampments ordered by former Mayor Greg Nickels.
After six months of organizing Nickelsville set up on an unused piece of city owned land on West Marginal Way on September 22, 2008. Volunteers and donors converged on the site and began setting up tents and building structures.
That afternoon the encampment was posted with notifications that it would be swept. Five days later several dozen homeless people and their allies were arrested. Nickelsville immediately set up on an adjacent state owned parking lot. Governor Gregoire allowed Nickelsville to remain long enough to find a new location.
After the election of Mayor McGinn Nickelsville was allowed to stay in and around Old Firehouse #39 in Lake City. When no other location was offered Nickelodeons voted to return to the very first site near the Duwamish Waterway, which had sat empty for the intervening years.
During the next two and a half years Nickelsville swelled to 170 people at one point, added a garden through a grant from the City of Seattle, and had two goats. Unfortunately, there was no police protection at that location, which was unsafe. This marked a low point in the encampment’s history becasue it was difficult to uphold the zero tolerance rules. In 2015, the Seattle City Council said that Nickelsville had to leave by Labor Day or be swept. Three new locations were found and permits granted. One of the locations was owned by the Low Income Housing Institute, and a partnership was formed which continues until today.
After a year and a half stay next to Jose Rizal Park Nickelsville began opening tiny house villages. LIHI provides case managers and is the conduit for funding from the City of Seattle, which Nickelsville is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the sites.
Nickelsville’s villages are self-governed by the homeless people who live there. Each person has weekly obligations, while elected leaders make sure rules are followed and solve problems that arise. Once a week people gather to conduct Nickelsville business at the Nickelsville Central Committee Meeting.
That’s the way it was, at least, until recently.[Full Disclosure: the city ordinance that sanctions the camps mandates that a Community Advisory Committee (CAC), made up of a mix of local business, faith, school and citizen representatives, operate in association with each of the camps. I have been a member of the Northlake CAC since it was formed shortly after our camp moved from Ballard to its present location. We have been meeting monthly with representatives of LIHI, Nickelsville and residents of the camps since early 2018.
It’s difficult to write this, as I have a number of strong opinions formed as a result of my interactions with all the parties, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to let those guide this article. I’ll do my best to report what’s happening objectively and dispassionately. We’ll see how I do.
Also note that throughout this situation, there has been an enormous amount of “he said, she said” accusations flying back and forth. It has been very difficult to substantiate any of the claims on either side, so I am leaving most of them out of this. That may leave an incomplete and inaccurate picture of the situation.]
Several issues have emerged as sticking points in the uncomfortable relationship between LIHI and Nickelsville, resulting in LIHI “firing” Nickelsville this past week, and declaring itself the sole operator of the three tiny house villages it cooperatively operated with Nickelsville (Northlake, Othello and Georgetown).
The first issue concerns “bars”: village residents self-manage and that includes electing a head of security and voting collectively on “bars” in which residents can be expelled temporarily or permanently from the camp.
According to LIHI, the residents have been barring people in unfair and discriminatory ways. Sharon Lee, LIHI’s Executive Director, gave an example in which a black resident was permanently dismissed for what seemed to be minor infractions while white residents were allowed to stay despite graver infractions. LIHI says that they have asked Nickelsville to turn over documents and reports regarding bars and that Nickelsville staff has refused. Nickelsville denies this. The CAC has been unable to obtain any evidence from LIHI to substantiate their claims.
A second issue cited regards case management. LIHI provides staff case managers to the villages, responsible for assisting villagers with moving to permanent housing. There have been a number of “tussles” over the case managers, however, with some residents reporting inappropriate behavior from case managers and case managers reporting that residents are being intimidating into not working with them. In some cases, the case managers have been told they can not enter certain areas of the camp and have reported harassment by the residents and Nickelsville staff.
Somewhere at the root of the case management issue is a difference in philosophy between LIHI/City of Seattle and Nickelsville. The former regards the purpose of the villages as temporary housing while permanent housing is found, and the case managers a critical part of moving residents on to that permanent housing. Nickelsville, for its part, sees the villages as long-term housing for many who don’t see a path to different housing situations for themselves.
If you take the city and LIHI’s position that permanent housing is the goal, then having every village resident work with case managers to achieve that is critical. If you take Nickelsville position that permanent housing isn’t realistic for many, then the case managers can seem to be intrusive, and are perceived as trying to pry long-term, intransigent residents out of the village.
All of this came to a head on March 20th, when, citing a lack of progress in negotiations over a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), LIHI wrote a letter to Nickelsville dissolving the partnership and ordering Nickelsville staff to turn over full responsibility for operating the villages to LIHI.
Predictably, Nickelsville did not take this well: Nickelsville lawyers sent a cease and desist letter to LIHI, arguing that the city ordinance only specified that LIHI act as “fiscal sponsor”, but that Nickelsville was the manager. (This is not consistent with the position the city has taken in our conversations with their representatives.) The residents of all three camps have taken votes, near unanimously opting to remain operated by Nickelsville. (LIHI maintains that many residents were intimidated into voting this way.)
On Tuesday, the Northlake and Othello villages were padlocked and LIHI staff were turned away. The police were called to all three villages, but not action was taken beyond the issuance of further orders from LIHI. Sharon Lee sent an email to Scott Morrow, Nickelsville staff, including the following:
Last night our case manager tried to enter Othello Village to check on a resident who was discharged from the hospital and she was told by Peggy Hotes of Nickelsville that our case management staff could not enter and had no business there. This morning again the gate was padlocked. LIHI case management staff asked that it be removed. Our staff talked to a person in leadership who said Scott Morrow ordered them to padlock the gate so he refused to remove it.
Padlocking the gates are a fire and life safety hazard. LIHI owns Othello Village and as the property owner you are to follow our direction and remove the locks. City of Seattle owns the Northlake and Georgetown sites. You are to remove the padlocks immediately.
On Tuesday evening, the Northlake CAC held a meeting where they directed a number of questions at Sharon Lee of LIHI, representatives of the city and Nickelsville staff. Over a dozen representatives coming from all three affected villages were also present. A DRAFT copy of the minutes of that meeting are online. The meeting was generally polite, if contentious. My tl;dr take-away was that a) LIHI had given up in trying to work with Nickelsville to get what it regarded as necessary changes in processes enacted and b) the residents and Nickelsville don’t trust LIHI to operate the villages in a fair and respectful way.
The next few days will be telling. Nickelsville was born out of homeless activists resisting city mandates that they disband and move on, so it is hard to see how they would bow out gracefully from involvement in the villages that they gave birth to. It is not at all clear what end game LIHI had in mind when they sent their letter, but neither side is showing sign of backing down.
LIHI has meetings planned for Thursday, March 28th at all three villages. Their intent is to introduce the residents to the new LIHI-employed site coordinators, who will take responsibility for managing the self-managed villages. We’ll see how that goes.