Many of you have at least a passing awareness of Nickelsville, the semi-nomadic community of people without permanent housing. In Wallingford, we have a Nickelsville “tiny house village” in the Northlake area, near Ivar’s Salmon House. Nickelsville, however, encompasses more than the Northlake site, and includes another village at Othello, in south Seattle. And, there are other tiny house villages in Seattle besides Nickelsville. A recent Seattle Times article counted eight villages with a total of 298 houses; it described plans for an additional 100 houses to be placed at two new sites in North Seattle and an existing one in Interbay.
Another more recent Times piece profiled a former resident of Nickelsville and her long journey from the tiny house village to a chance at a new life with her son in Arizona. The writer, Scott Greenstone, had penned an earlier article about the woman two years ago, and she didn’t like it:
When she read it, she was so overcome with embarrassment and shame that she couldn’t finish. She wanted to be seen as more than the worst parts of her life.
There are so many homeless people in Seattle, so many encampments and daily reminders of the scale of the issue and the ineffectiveness of the efforts to stem the tide, that it is easy to obsess on the metadata of the problem—the overwhelming numbers and the slope of the trendlines. Greenstone’s article reminds us that there are people and complicated or convoluted stories inside each one of those tents or tiny houses.
Nickelsville is but a small piece of the Seattle homelessness story, but a significant one. It has played a major role in Seattle’s long and mostly shameful history of homelessness and government response to it. The first Nickelsville (named for then Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels) formed in 2008. It has assumed many different forms in many different locations from West Seattle, to industrial areas of SODO, to Lake City, to our neighborhood. The Northlake tiny house village on 4th NE has been in its current location since 2018, when it moved from Ballard.
The relationship between the city of Seattle and the various Nickelsville villages and its leadership has been, in a word, rocky. The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) has been the contracted go-between for the city. The relationship between Nickelsville leadership and LIHI has been a contentious one for the last few years.
In October 2019, the city announced the Northlake village would be closed for reasons of “performance and compliance concerns”, apparently stemming from the breakdown between LIHI and Nickelsville. The Seattle Times reported that Nickelsville locked its gates and forbade city and LIHI representatives from entering the premises over disputes on case management and the Nickelsville practice of expelling residents who repeatedly broke community rules. When the pandemic derailed all things normal in Seattle and everywhere else, the city agreed to allow the tiny village to remain in place with city support and services until June 1, 2020. The letter came from Deputy Mayor and current mayoral candidate Casey Sixkiller.
That was the last Nickelsville development I had heard about, and of course it is over a year since the designated deadline. Our dearly departed (to Bainbridge Island) Wallyhood founder and editor, Jordan Schwartz, had prepared a final article for Wallyhood last year concerning the status of the tiny village. But it was never published. Wallyhood and Jordan have posted a number of other articles about Nickelville, including this one and this. I thought the time was ripe to find out what is going on with Nickelsville. But, this proved to be a more difficult task than I naively thought.
Jordan had given me a couple of contacts for an update. An important one was Jami Fecher, Pastor of Gift of Grace Lutheran Church, which is located in Wallingford. Gift of Grace has been a religious sponsor of Nickelsville for a long time. While regular communication with the village has been limited by the pandemic, Pastor Jami counts at least one Nickelsville resident among his flock and has kept up, indirectly, with life in the village. According to Jami, things are going well in Nickelsville Northlake. He says that the village was promised money from the city in November but has not yet received it. As it is, utilities are provided by the city, other expenses are covered by residents.
In Pastor Jami’s view, even when things are going well for Nickelsville, the residents live under the constant stress of the potential of being forced to move (swept). But they would be willing to move, if the city could grant them a safe and sanctioned location, as has frequently been proposed. If such a move ever happens, the Gift of Grace will continue to sponsor the village. Pastor Jami had little praise for the Mayor and the city Human Services Department, which has homelessness in its portfolio of social service responsibilities.
I had hoped to provide a number of perspectives on the village and, inevitably, the larger context of homelessness in Seattle. However, I found people across the spectrum apparently either too busy, reluctant, or shy to discuss “things.” I contacted and never heard back from Deputy Mayor Casey Sixkiller, District 4 City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee, LIHI Advocacy and Community Engagement Coordinator Josh Castle, two members of the Nickelsville Northlake community, and a Wallingford resident who in the past has been active in engaging with the village. I would note that Councilmember Pedersen does discuss the newest tiny village (at Roosevelt NE and NE 45th) in his most recent blog post—but nothing about Nickelsville Northlake.
The lack of response was disappointing, but I am hoping that others in the Wallyhood community—including residents of Nickelsville—might have experiences and thoughts about how things are going and the outlook for the future. The issue of homelessness in Seattle strikes many raw nerves, and I would encourage/insist on people being civil in their discourse! If I hear back from any of the people I attempted to contact, I will report back.