Nickelsville security, part 2: Who’s in charge, anyway?

(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

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

26 Replies to "Nickelsville security, part 2: Who's in charge, anyway?"

  • Bill June 4, 2011 (9:09 pm)

    If I want to Google map the Nickelsville location, what is the address?

  • Joan June 4, 2011 (9:20 pm)

    Whoa! GREAT STORY, JoB! I had no idea of the internal structure necessary to run that tiny town.

    Keep up the good work, Jo!

  • Mac June 4, 2011 (9:25 pm)

    Great story! I’ve really been appreciating your coverage of Nickelsville.

    @Bill, from their web site: “We are located at 7116 W Marginal Way SW at 2nd Ave SW and W Marginal Way SW.”

  • JoB June 4, 2011 (9:50 pm)

    Bill.. they have no address.
    you go down the hill towards 99 and turn right on Marginal Way. almost immediately you turn left into a park and ride lot. The entrance to the camp is over the berm next to the portable toilets. there are broad steps on the other side.
    Be sure to check in with security on the right at the foot of the steps.

  • JoB June 4, 2011 (9:51 pm)

    so joan.. what else would you like to know?

  • Jiggers June 5, 2011 (12:04 am)

    Awesome JoB!

  • islewrite June 5, 2011 (12:30 am)

    An added bonus is that consultant Scott Morrow is WS born and raised.

  • visitor June 5, 2011 (2:01 am)

    >>>No contact with host

    what does that mean?

  • rawkergrrrl June 5, 2011 (3:59 am)

    I think it would be helpful if the name were changed. It seems to imply that our previous mayor is responsible for their homelessness. Perhaps Bush Manor would make more sense. Or Camp Hope, but not Nickelsville. That’s insulting to West Seattle’s only resident to ever be mayor. I think Camp Hope makes more sense.

  • JoB June 5, 2011 (6:11 am)

    “no contact with host” means that if you aren’t the person who is supposed to be dealing with the facilities.. you don’t call the landlord (when they had one) or the garbage people to have the dumpster emptied, or the portable toilet people.. or…
    i printed the full list of the rules they sign off on in the interests of disclosure..
    but had to have that one explained to me.

  • JoB June 5, 2011 (6:18 am)

    the name doesn’t mean anything to anyone but us.
    Nickelsville is a nationally known pilot homeless program and at this point changing the name would only bring more attention to our illustrious past mayor’s track record on the homeless issue.
    If everyone stopped bringing the name association up..
    people would stop thinking about the ex-Mayor and associate Nickels with those little 5 cent pieces.
    all in all. pretty appropriate for a homeless encampment where every nickel counts.

  • miws June 5, 2011 (8:47 am)

    The rules list was apparently written up for one of the previous locations, perhaps the fire station in Lake City. So, some of the rules seem a little bit odd for the current location, for example, the “quiet time” on the rule list is noted as 9:00 pm to 7:00am, but again, as noted above, it’s until 8:00am at our current location..


    I believe at the fire station, they had an onsite “host”, so I think that rule was more applicable there. Although, as JoB pointed out, it applies at our current location to a certain extent.



  • Jiggers June 5, 2011 (9:56 am)

    The rule list is the same one I believe that SHARE uses. SHARE has probably about a dozen hosts other than the Nickelsville tent city including churches etc… to let homeless use their place for safe hoarbor. You have to be screened in before they allow you to stay.

  • Yardark June 5, 2011 (10:50 am)

    If Nickelsville was still trying to insult Mayor Nickels, they’d be doing a horrible job. I’d be honored to have my name on that camp.

    Hopefully, the former Mayor will see it that way too and embrace this ground breaking community.

  • John June 5, 2011 (1:03 pm)

    This information, while helpful to begin to understand the so-called camp ‘rules,’ does not include any details on how these rules have been enforced. For example, how many campers have been ‘evicted,’ and/or ‘warned’ for drinking, drug use, violence, sanitation issues, etc… ? How many children are in the camp, and are they attending school? If law enforcement was called, why, and how was the situation resolved?

    I have no reason to doubt neither this report nor the statements of those in the camp. But, reporting about the camp rules / leadership structure is but a small part of the story.

    • WSB June 5, 2011 (1:34 pm)

      According to part 1, no children currently (unless some have arrived in the few days since that was written). No law enforcement calls as of when I spoke with SPD Sgt. Whitcomb last week, getting answers for Joanne’s questions (the only research involvement I had with the piece). Certainly there’s enough to say about this camp, and many other organizations/institutions/residential facilities (outdoor and indoor) for many stories – the question’s always, getting them done. For those just coming in here, I should re-state that Joanne and Kevin volunteered to tell these stories after helping fellow longtime WSB Forums member Mike move into Nickelsville when he lost his apartment – they are above and beyond what we would be covering otherwise. – TR

  • tdwhitney June 5, 2011 (1:04 pm)

    do they have showers or laundry facilities? do they provide food or do people have to find their own? Just curious…

  • Norma June 5, 2011 (5:34 pm)

    Nickles has years of political experience plus a very good sense of humor. He’s probably not offended by the name but I am. And that’s the point. Why offend people and lose their support?

  • DP June 5, 2011 (8:54 pm)

    Agree with previous poster. Greg Nickels does care about homeless people. When he was mayor, I heard him speaking compassionately on the issue of homelessness and saw him trying to do his best.
    Some people in the original camp thought he was against them, so they named the camp for him in order to spite him — the same way people spited Herbert Hoover by calling Depression-era camps “Hoovervilles.”
    Anyway, I feel that this is insulting to Mr. Nickels. The camp should have a more positive name and should not be named after any person. (I like Hopeville, too.)
    Good reporting, JoB. Thanks.

  • JoB June 5, 2011 (9:12 pm)

    families come and go at Nickelsville.
    As of this afternoon there was another family living there. I met the kids.
    I confess i didn’t ask them about school but it does bring up some interesting questions..
    how do parents manage day to day life for kids when they have no choice but to resort to a homeless encampment?
    It’s a question i have been asking.
    I could have provided numbers for you of how many people have been banned in a specific period..
    and for what..
    those numbers were offered.
    but i didn’t feel that was the point.
    Do you know how many of your neighbors have asked an out of control family member or house-guest to leave in the past week? Would that information make a difference to your safety in the neighborhood?
    I confess, I don’t have a clue though i clearly see new faces in the neighborhood and sometimes even notice that an old one has vanished.
    I will tell you that there were several banns in the works today.. for reasons ranging from alcohol use to not showing up for security work details.
    but the Police had not been called to Nickelsville as of late last week for any altercation.
    I was told by security that SPD had been asked by a resident who was involved in a domestic dispute to accompany them when they retrieved their personal belongings. SPD was not called to the camp for the altercation that preceded this request.
    the short answer here is that this is just a community of a wide variety of individuals … probably a lot like the one you live in…
    yes, they have security concerns, just like any neighborhood.
    But unlike my neighborhood..
    every resident agrees to live by clear rules of behavior that far exceed the criminal code…

  • JoB June 5, 2011 (9:17 pm)

    When Mr Nickels decided to become a politician..
    he chose to make himself a public figure…
    I suspect he thinks having a homeless encampment named after him is a pretty small price to pay for success.
    besides, if they become the eco-village they plan, it may turn out in his favor yet.
    as for the folks who choose to be offended by a political joke that has become redundant…
    I suspect there is little that can be done that would change their minds anyway.

  • JoB June 5, 2011 (9:38 pm)

    for the past two days,
    i have have had 3 Nickelsville residents working on my yard.
    I asked for workers and ended up with 3 vets…
    two 50+ and disabled..
    the other much younger vet was new to seattle and living in Nickelsville while he waited for the security clearance for his new job to clear so he can go to work.
    I worked in the yard with them.
    We disabled folks talked about our aches and pains and fears about upcoming medical tests.
    we talked about relationships.
    One of the men and i will both be celebrating our 20th anniversaries this month.
    one of the men asked if he could bring the lilac blossoms that we trimmed away from the steps to his wife.
    we talked about nutrition and how difficult it is to always eat right.
    we talked about places we had lived and where we still want to visit.
    We talked about dogs in general.. and my rescue dogs in particular.
    we talked about what plants perform well in Seattle and where they grew the best plants in the NW.
    we talked about garden design and yard maintenance and who was going to clear the moss from the roof.
    We worked together and talked like any other people do while they work.
    and you wouldn’t believe the minor miracle these men achieved in my yard 10 hours. They were well worth every penny i paid them.. the good company was just a bonus.

  • Cbo June 6, 2011 (9:24 am)

    I live about a block above their city and i must say i love the fact that its back!
    I live on the greenbelt above west marginal and since it reopened i have noticed a huge reduction in foottraffic of homeless through the woods i live next too. No more late night fires and wierd noises coming from the greenbelt.
    A few of them had tents setup here and there in the greenbelt even! With the reopening i have noticed it has all stopped and i have quiet on my back deck again

  • R June 6, 2011 (11:12 am)

    Thank you Cbo. That’s really interesting and useful information.

  • 365Stairs June 6, 2011 (11:59 am)

    I recently made a small supply delivery to the camp and with almost military style supply chain precision, there were 5 residents up and in line to recieve the materials.

    Great details reporting on this! It has really been a wake up for me to have a glimpse into their lives… For those who read on both stories…you really sense that all the residents (will avoid use of “these people”) are absolutely making the best of their circumstances and they shouldn’t ever be looked down on for any of it! – What else can be asked of them?

    I will say that the tremendous survival skills being deployed, combined with all the required basic administrative processes for managing a large / diverse group should be kept in all our minds for that eventual time – especially in our geography – when the “s hits the fan” and those accustomed to a standard home need to join up with somebody…somewhere…some time…either temporarily or long term…

    Never know who your new friend may be…

  • nwcitizen June 15, 2011 (5:46 pm)

    What an awesome report! Thank you so much.

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