By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Three years ago, Highland Park Action Committee marked the end of a two-year fight against a proposal to build, in their neighborhood, a city jail that ultimately turned out to be – as they had pointed out all along – unnecessary.
In the fight’s first year, 2008, the proposed jail site on city- and state-owned property at West Marginal Way and Highland Park Way was briefly occupied by a homeless encampment calling itself Nickelsville, until then-Mayor Greg Nickels ordered it evicted.
For months, the encampment was not an issue for the Highland Park community. But now, after Nickelsville declared itself to be in dangerous straits, as reported here Sunday, they’re on the brink of marshaling for another intensive fight.
That was the upshot of last night’s HPAC meeting – from which we reported live via Twitter – and of a letter that HPAC has sent to city leadership. And there is another letter involved – this morning, we received one from Nickelsville’s “Central Committee,” with its side of an incident we reported in last Sunday’s story, as well as their declaration that things are improving.
More on the major new developments, ahead:
First, from last night’s HPAC meeting.
“What a mess,” offered one community member, after hearing HPAC co-chair Carolyn Stauffer summarize recent reports and developments. The encampment is something with which HPAC has taken pains to deal calmly over the past year-plus, including inviting encampment representatives to their meetings (WSB coverage here) and participating in discussions with city officials.
To take the community’s temperature, HPAC even conducted a survey last year (WSB coverage here). The general sentiment was that it was time for the encampment to go but not until it had a new site.
But even before what transpired last weekend, with camp leadership temporarily having Nickelsville’s toilets removed because, they said, they could not evict troublemakers and needed to send a message, patience in Highland Park was running thin.
Stauffer said last night: “Highland Park is patient and kind – we’re all struggling ourselves … it’s been 2 years now and we have a compassionate community; I don’t know any other Seattle community that would act the way that our community has.” Since the stories over the weekend, she said, she’d been getting barraged with e-mails expressing concern.
Stauffer said she and co-chair Billy Stauffer had been at a meeting at Councilmember Nick Licata‘s office with other stakeholders just last week, including homeless-advocacy organizations SHARE/WHEEL and Nickelsville “staff person” Scott Morrow, as Licata considers legislation related to homeless encampments. She also mentioned that Food Lifeline has been working toward an end of March deadline for decisionmaking on its push for the site.
The mayor’s office has told her that they’re meeting with Nickelsville and the police this week. Stauffer outlined community options from calling for eviction to suing to going public with information they have not made public before.
Regarding the hangup in Food Lifeline’s proposal, the coordination between multiple site owners – the city and state – was the hangup, as Stauffer recapped, saying that FL needed the entire site. (We checked this morning with FLL, whose spokesperson Amy Lee Derenthal told WSB that they expect to hear from the Mayor and City Council tomorrow or Monday regarding affirmation that they will work to help the project proceed.)
“Seems to me whatever we do, we’re going to get called NIMBYs, but the city is operating illegally – there is no statute (that allows this), there is no process allowing a community to have input into this, I don’t think the camp is our problem any more – the city needs to evict them.” said one community member, who also said that any other community is at risk of having this happen to them – having an encampment show up and stay for two years. “It’s time for them (the city) to deal with this problem in some legal way … it’s gotta go then; we’re allowing the process to go on. It’s going to screw every other neighborhood in the city.”
Stauffer said that the mayor’s office has committed to taking care of any off-the-site encampments spotted, like those that have been cropping up chronically in the West Duwamish Greenbelt just west of Nickelsville – and gave a phone number people could use to report them: 206-684-2489.
Former HPAC chair Dan Mullins also brought up that when HPAC fought the jail once considered for that same site “it was a completely illegal use of the property,” but he was told at the time “we’re the city, we can do anything we want” with it. He said he has brought up concerns and received “generic” responses talking about Nickelsville in glowing terms. “The only way we stopped the jail is we all pulled together, we all showed up at the meetings … and after a while we walked into their offices and they said ‘Not you guys again’.”
It is a health and safety problem, among other things. And liability for the city, others pointed out.
“We need them to be afraid that we’re going to give them a black eye. We need to make more noise, get more organized .. when we had the jail looming, we had letter writing, we had people out in front of (businesses) with clipboards, we did online signature-gathering – it was painstaking, but they finally listened to us,” said Mullins. “And when the camp doesn’t let the meth-heads in, they go across the street (to the greenbelt), and you know what’s across the street? My back yard.”
More on this at the end of the story. But first, to our latest communication from Nickelsville – from the Central Committee letter addressed to your editor here, e-mailed to WSB this morning by Scott Morrow:
Last Sunday, March 24th, you wrote about “Trouble at Nickelsville.” (Wednesday) morning the Nickelsville Central Committee met. We reviewed the events of the last week and your coverage of them. It was the Central Committee’s conclusion that your reporting was fair, but incomplete. It was agreed that we would try to fill out the important things that were missed.
Several of us then volunteered to write you. Other people worked on other projects. At the end of the meeting an outline of this letter was written and read aloud. The Central Committee voted to approve it, with corrections. Now we will take it to Nickelsville and see who wants to sign it. By signing it, we are saying that it is a truthful account.
What was most incomplete about your report was any fact checking of the March 17th Police Report that allegedly details an assault. We don’t know who this officer is, but we do know he got many things very wrong.
On Sunday afternoon, March 17th, 2013 a “Show of Force” team was put together to extract four permanently barred campers from the Nickelsville community. These 4 barred campers had all been given written notice that they were barred, and why.
Each of these campers had signed our Encampment Rules upon moving in. They state “if we ask you to leave. You will also be required to give up your tent, which belongs to the encampment. If you refuse, the encampment show of force team will be called in to ensure that you leave …”
Note: What we are saying is true, but we will not object if the West Seattle Blog takes out the names of the barred campers and substitutes “x” or “y,” just like the police reports do.”
(Editor’s notes: That is what we are doing, as publishing the names of accused but not charged people is against general WSB policy. Also regarding the report-writing officer’s identity, that was in the police report, which is available for public download, free of charge, the same way we got it.)
The letter continues:
Back to Sunday: We in the “Show of Force” team first approached the barred camper named (Y) and warned that she needed to leave immediately or we would reclaim Nickelsville property; cinder blocks, tarps, pallets, plywood, blankets, and most importantly, our tent. Another barred camper, (Z), called in SPD while we were beginning to reclaim our items.
SPD arrived on the scene and our Show of Force Team was threatened to be arrested if we did not cease trying to get these individuals out of our camp. All attempts ceased immediately and no further actions were taken.
Here is what the mystery SPD Police Report got wrong:
1) We were not a mob, and the police officers never called us that to our faces. We were an organized team. We brought along tools to get our property with – mostly hammers. We don’t have any crowbars, and none of our tools were used in a threatening manner, or as weapons.
2) (Y) ‘aka the victim’ was no innocent. She knew why she was barred – it was for smuggling another barred camper into her tent.
3) (X) was no innocent. She knew she was barred for allowing another permanently barred camper into her tent. She cries at the drop of a hat, and for no other reason than conning someone into feeling sorry for her.
4) Our security heads never told the police that they were being evicted for calling the police.
The reason that the four barred campers needed to leave was because they were letting barred people into their tents repeatedly. The amount of visitors to their tent – for very short periods – was extremely high. We knew lots of their visitors, and we knew what they wanted – meth.
Now, it is true that (Z) and the people who kept coming to his tent didn’t say they were trafficking meth. Is this any surprise?
The following Wednesday at our weekly Central Community meeting, it was discussed what other ways that we could get these unwanted campers, who had still refused to leave, out of our camp. The first decision at last week’s meeting was to send a letter to the Police Chief expressing how upset and disappointed we were about the lack of support from SPD on these issues – a copy of which we will provide you with as well.
We also decided that we would attempt to reclaim our property again. The situation was dire – we know Nickelsville can’t survive if we’ve got meth dealers there. So on Friday March 22, 2013, we met at 9:00 am with several supporters and returned to the Nickelsville tents and property the barred campers had refused to give up.
Once again, they called the police. But this time, when the police came out, they acknowledged we had a right to reclaim our property. They just asked that our Show of Force Team give the barred camperas some time to pack and leave.
Unfortunately, a second group of Police Officers came out in the afternoon. They totally contradicted the police from the morning, and tried to tell us that our situation was like a “Landlord/Tenant” one.
Of course, it’s not. Our situation is no different than the relationship any other shelter or transitional housing provider in Seattle has with the homeless people who stay with them. The Police support these organizations’ staff and leadership when people have to leave.
The property owner at Nickelsville knows well we are here. We are grateful for the help the city has given us. Last year the City supported our garden. This year, along with the County Health Department, the City has helped us in the successful campaign to rid Nickelsville of rats.
Informed people know that it is better to have a well-run and safe encampment – like Nickelsville works hard to be – than to pretend that all homeless people are just beasts in a jungle, unworthy of protection.
After a hard weekend, the barred campers are gone and our camp is slowly returning to stability. In order for us to remain safe and stable, police cooperation is needed. The Mayor’s Office has now invited us to meet with the SW Precinct Leadership. We hope that together ways can be found to work together to keep Nickelsville a safe camp, and also to protect the neighborhood.
(19 handwritten signatures)
The Citizens of Nickelsville
The letter to police mentioned above is dated March 19th and alleges that “Nickelodeons and Nickelsville are being treated as Second Class Citizens by the Seattle Police Department” and says their “rights – as Citizens, as a community, and as an organization – to police protection from unlawful acts of criminals is being ignored by (SPD).” It names three people the camp claims are troublemakers, including the same alleged meth dealer mentioned in the note to WSB, and reiterates the claim that police are thwarting evictions.
As we reported after Tuesday night’s West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network meeting, Southwest Precinct commander Capt. Joe Kessler denies that SPD is not responding to Nickelsville calls as it would answer calls for help from elsewhere, and reiterated that the current policy – which he said comes from higher-up the city-decisionmaking chain – is that people camping on public property have no right to boot other people off public property.
So where does this all stand? Somebody has to make the next move. Even as we finished writing this story, we checked in with HPAC co-chair Carolyn Stauffer, who said she has sent a letter of her own to city leadership today and granted us permission to include it here:
I want to give you a heads up that the Highland Park Action Committee met last night, and while we have been very patient with having Nickelsville at the bottom of Highland Park Drive, the consensus in the neighborhood is that we are ready to call for an eviction and ask for a move out date.
We have not asked for that yet, but have continued to inform you of our displeasure with having the camp in the same location for 2 years now. You have set a dangerous precedent for all neighborhoods in Seattle, one I am confident not all neighborhoods will be tolerant of.
Organizations such as Scott Morrow’s can now point to Nickelsville and your inaction (and help in some cases), as a justification for squatting illegally on public land for years at a time. We do not want to go through another summer with the encampment at its current location, and look forward to hearing a move out date from you as soon as possible. We understand that Food Lifeline’s interests in the property will end at the end of March, if you can’t figure out how to make that deal happen, you have missed a golden opportunity. Regardless of that opportunity, we would like that property free of an encampment. Should we not hear from you with a move out date, we will be forced to take action which will include media on a local and national level, a lot of emails and visits to your offices from our community, and a lawsuit.
Thank you for your prompt attention, and I am sorry to be so abrupt – we have tried to be kind, we have tried to be tolerant and understanding of both your situation, and that of the homeless, but we are finished. We feel taken advantage of and ignored, we feel disrespected as a community, and are one big group of angry voters. We are working on a more official call for eviction to come to you after Food Lifeline’s “end of March” date for having that deal figured out.
More followups to come.