(EDITOR’S NOTE: Part 1 of this two-part report, detailing a recent security incident at the Highland Park Way/W. Marginal Way camp, can be found here.)
Story by Joanne Brayden
Photos by Kevin McClintic
Special to West Seattle Blog
Nickelsville is a self-managed homeless encampment that recently moved back to vacant city-owned land in the industrial area on the southeastern fringe of West Seattle. It is easy to dismiss it as just another collection of tents harboring those who opt out of a more structured life. But the portable toilets and dumpster in the parking lot, along with the security tent just inside the camp, tell a different story.
Obviously someone is in charge here – but it’s not any one particular person.
Nickelsville is an old-fashioned participatory democratic society, with nightly town-hall-style meetings and a mandatory weekly meeting where all residents vote on every aspect of community life. Nickelsville does have a consistent staff person, Scott Morrow, who the management team refers to as a consultant, and there’s Peggy Hotes of Jam with Justice, who takes a hands-on approach to hosting the Nickelsville project. But the day-to-day management of providing basic services for residents is conducted by a fluctuating team of roughly 15 to 20 elected managers divided into overlapping areas of responsibility; they coordinate resources and volunteers..
The current management team at Nickelsville is comprised of: 3 heads of Security (2 + 1 alternate), 2 Bookkeepers (1 + 1 alternate), 4 Arbitrators (3+ 1 alternate), 2 Donation Coordinators, 2 Camp Masters, 3 Kitchen Heads and 1 Garden Master. The positions and the individuals carrying out these roles shift according to camp needs and personal availability.
The basic security safety net for Nickelsville is provided by a trio of management teams: Security, Bookkeepers and Arbitrators. Security screens every new resident, has the authority to eject any resident breaking any no-tolerance rule, tracks daily life in the camp, including who is in residence, investigates and manages minor disputes, and calls 911 in an emergency. Bookkeepers keep databases on residents and check local and national online databases for predators. Arbitrators act as the conflict resolution and judicial arm of the camp.
The job of managing the security of 100+ residents on a daily basis is a 24-hour, 7-day a week job that is taken very seriously by the security team at Nickelsville.
There are always at least two residents on duty at security 24 hours a day, seven days a week, who are responsible for answering the phone, greeting and logging in visitors and donations, arranging for escorts for all visitors, investigating and noting any incidents that occur on their shift, coordinating with the Camp Masters to house both new permanent residents and overnight transient guests, coordinating with Camp Coordinators to manage resources and donations, carrying out regular internal and perimeter patrols, ensuring that residents with doctor’s appointments or jobs are awake and out of camp on time to keep those appointments, interceding in personal conflicts, and simply being the one ear that is always available for residents’ concerns. They are literally responsible for their community’s day-to-day safety and well being.
I asked what they look for when patrolling. Security Mike (at right in photo above) told me they look for unusual, suspicious or inappropriate behavior, both inside the camp and out.
When residents check into Nickelsville, they sign on to a fairly lengthy list of rules. Breaking a No Tolerance rule is grounds for immediate eviction. Breaking any of the other rules on the list has consequences ranging from censure to at least a temporary ban.
The no-tolerance rules are:
• Absolutely no alcohol or controlled substances (without prescription),
• No violent behavior or words anywhere in camp including tents,
• No sexual predators,
• No stealing or theft of property,
• No weapons, including knives over 4 inches,
• No smoking or open flames in tents
• No contact with host, this includes facilities, services, restrooms, etc… except by those assigned to do this.
The remaining rules that every resident agrees to, in writing, are:
• Sign in every day before you leave
• Residents and guest are to remain in designated camping and community areas
• Two people will be on security at all times
• Only security and donation coordinator are to approach donors, and two people must sign donation log for donations
• No open flames or fires, except for in designated areas
• Residents must be dressed outside of their tents (no shirts, no shoes, no service)
• Kitchen is to be closed from 10 PM to 4 AM daily, except with security notification
• Quiet time is from 9 PM to 8 AM
• Be respectful and courteous to everyone regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, etc.
• Be considerate of each other and don’t do stupid stuff
Since they moved back to West Seattle, several residents have been banned for drinking or drugging in the vicinity of Nickelsville. At least one man was banned when it was discovered that he had lied about being a registered sex offender (that’s the subject of part 1 of this 2-part report). Several others have been asked to leave the camp for at least 72 hours for other infractions, including irresponsible behavior with pets.
Temporary bans are handled by the Arbitration Council. with 2 out of 3 hearing all sides of a matter and agreeing on any decision. For the most part their decisions are binding, but a permanent ban by the Arbitration Council for any infraction other than the no tolerance rules can be appealed.
The second set of rules contain what most would think of as a lot of gray areas like “being considerate” and “not doing stupid stuff.” I asked Arbitrator Julie what happens when one of those rules is broken. She said that when it comes to the really gray areas it is an arbitrator’s job to try to find a solution that works for everyone. “We are not into this for making the homeless homeless… we are into it for making the homeless safe.”
(This tent is the camp office.)
Security shifts are one of the many community-service requirements of residency at Nickelsville, even for those who work at full-time paying jobs or hold down other camp positions. Every security shift of at least two people is backed by the heads of Security, Arbitrators, Bookkeepers, Camp Masters and Camp Coordinators. They are in turn backed by the local police force.
Mike, who is one of the heads of Nickelsville Security, and Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, who heads the Seattle Police media-response unit, both said that they work diligently toward creating a good relationship. Community policing officers visit the camp regularly to offer assistance and often notify the heads of security when they encounter residents who cause a disturbance outside the camp.
Security Mike told me that the camp has grown by approximately 50 new residents since their move back to West Seattle. In addition to permanent residents, if they have space, they also offer overnight housing to those referred to them by overflowing local shelters. The transient guests are also Security’s responsibility.
Providing services and security for such a large fluctuating population is no small task.
In the hour that Security Mike and I talked, he was interrupted a half dozen times to sort out some concern that couldn’t wait. What I witnessed was community policing at its most elemental; immediate intervention in small conflicts that prevent escalation. It’s no wonder residents affectionately refers to Security as the Nickelsville PD.
Nickelsville is conscientious about security and seldom has to call in the local police, they told us. We verified this with Seattle Police: When asked if there had been any police calls to Nickelsville for altercations or crimes since their return to West Seattle three weeks ago, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, head of the SPD Media Unit, replied that there had not.
Sgt. Whitcomb said that they plan to treat Nickelsville like any other community, patrolling with the same frequency as they patrol any other neighborhood in the city and working to build a good relationship with residents.
There have been several calls to 911 for emergency medical services. Nickelsville has a large population of residents with chronic medical conditions that can require emergency intervention. They have also had domestic disturbances that can be resolved more peacefully by an officer’s presence while one partner packs up to leave..
The enormity of the challenge of self management that residents have taken on in Nickelsville is daunting, and the community’s security is just one aspect of that challenge.
Security operates as the central communication hub of the community, bringing camp masters and donation coordinators and kitchen heads together with the volunteer labor to turn outside donations of goods and services into community resources.
Far from being lazy, the residents of this camp work, hard for what they call their rent, to
create a safe home for themselves and providing security for their greater community.
In the letter of intent on the back of the Intake Form is the camp motto, “Nickelodeans are problem solvers, not whiners.”
When your community is literally a collection of tents in the middle of a field, there is a lot of work to be done under what can be harsh conditions and it is easy for tempers to flare. In moments like those, the rules are harder to follow, yet there seems to be a mostly universal acceptance of the need for the order they provide. As Arbitrator Julie put it, when you make your own rules, enforcing those rules can be very empowering.
They work hard to be good neighbors. Last Sunday, the residents of Nickelsville were out picking up trash in the Industrial area outside their encampment..
If you have safety concerns or suggestions, you can contact Nickelsville staff at 206-450-9136 or by e-mail at Scott@nickelsvilleseattle.org.
If you want to volunteer time or resources, you can call Nickelsville directly at 206-450-5268.
For more information or to sign up for an e-mail alert of Nickelsville News and their current-needs list, visit the webpage at www.nickelsvilleseattle.org.
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