(September photo by Kevin McClintic)
Six months after its return to a city-owned site at West Marginal Way SW/Highland Park Way, the encampment that calls itself Nickelsville is in a sort of limbo – legal, and otherwise.
After the Highland Park Action Committee‘s meeting last night, following up on a discussion that began at its October meeting (as reported here), it seemed clear that the city does not currently intend to either:
*Evict the encampment
*Provide services (water/sewer/power hookups) that would make the site more habitable
You can watch the meeting yourself, if you’d like to see how it all played out:
Context for the meeting was a letter sent to the city by HPAC, as co-chairs Carolyn Stauffer and Billy Stauffer explained at the start of last night’s meeting. As the letter began, “In the past, our organization has been supportive of Nickelsville as a temporary situation. With news of this potentially becoming a permanent settlement, we have begun to hear a lot from our friends and neighbors.” HPAC says that the “burden of homelessness” should be shared with the rest of the city and suggests that this encampment, like others in the city, could switch sites every six months or so.
The issue drew a crowd to the meeting, including City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith, and Lisa Herbold from Councilmember Nick Licata‘s office.
Smith noted that the McGinn administration has a “different relationship” with Nickelsville and the issue in general than his predecessor – who evicted the original encampment – and that Smith had been asked to review the entire issue citywide.
He went into the background of how Nickelsville decided on its own to leave Fire Station 39, where it could have stayed longer, and moved onto the spot where it is now. (Nickelsville representatives later said they moved because the fire station was too small. The site where they are now is where the encampment began in 2008, with more than a dozen moves following before they returned to this site, which the city had once considered for a new jail, against which HPAC had led the fight.)
Smith said the administration is wrestling with the issue of what to do about encampments like this one – and others, in greenbelts, etc. “There is no legal pathway for them to be on (that site) right now. Land use would have to be changed. We would have to create a new terminology in the Land Use Code for that to be a legal place for them to be.” He said the council is expected to look at the code next spring, to see if there is a place in it for this kind of encampment. (He mentioned he’s kept up on Nickelsville in ways including reading WSB.) But he said “we need to have the conversation” whether a place like this should and could exist. “I’m not here to say this is going to be easy, simple, or that we have a perfect plan.”
Right now, he said, they can’t issue a permit for the encampment, because it’s not a “legal use.” So, asked an attendee, how could the mayor just say they could stay there (as first reported here when we asked the question shortly after their return)? Smith didn’t directly answered the question but said they had no warning that’s where they were going, and now they are trying to create a “clear set” of procedures/rules to govern encampments.
Councilmember Tom Rasmussen spoke next (starting about 26 minutes into the video). He drew some applause for saying he believes encampments should be temporary, not permanent. He also said the problem should be shared not just by different neighborhoods, but more widely; he says Seattle draws more homeless people because it is known as a “compassionate city.”
Frustrated neighbors spoke as well. If the land-use code doesn’t allow this kind of use, why are city officials “not doing their job?” one asked. To the city officials’ point of why eviction seemed infeasible, one woman pointed out that Occupy Seattle had been booted from Westlake Park downtown. City reps, meantime, said it was more an issue of where the Nickelsville residents would go, since the city’s shelter beds are maxed out every night with another 1,700 people sleeping on the streets.
Representatives of Nickelsville, including residents, were there too, for the entire discussion. They presented a letter of their own, saying they didn’t think the site could eventually hold 1,000 people after all, and also saying they had found other placements for the families with children who had been in the camp recently. There were voices in support of them as well – Joanne Brayden, who said she volunteers at the encampment virtually every day. Former HPAC chair Dorsol Plants noted the dichotomy of eastern West Seattle having both this debate over an unofficial encampment and over “official” housing for homeless people (alluding to the Delridge controversy over the DESC proposal to build 75 apartments to take people out of homelessness). He also called attention to the fact that the residents include combat veterans.
But in the end – it still came down to, nothing is expected to change any time soon. Even in the waning moments, Councilmember Rasmussen was suggesting concerns be taken to the mayor’s office, and Deputy Mayor Smith, feet away, was saying they’d be happy to “work with the council.” (He also said earlier that he had sent a warning letters of sorts to Nickelsville saying the city had not fully studied the site in terms of environmental factors and could not speak to what the site’s soil might contain.)
The issue of the city’s supply of shelter beds, by the way, is scheduled for discussion the next time the council’s Housing, Human Services, Health, and Culture Committee – of which Rasmussen is a member – meets, on December 14th.