Nickelsville’s days appear to be numbered

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SEATTLE — Seattle’s notorious homeless encampment, Nickelsville, just marked its second anniversary on West Marginal Way. But it’s not likely to make it to a third.

nickelsvilleThe city is on the verge of shutting Nickelsville down and adopting rules that would limit encampments to no more than one year in any location.

“That’s the scary part right now is not knowing where we’re going to go, and what we are going to do,” said Nickelsville resident Michael Montanari.

Montanari moved to Nickelsville recently after spending time sleeping under the West Seattle Bridge.

“Having community and people who are in the same situation, it really helps you,” Montanari said.  “We help each other lift up each other’s spirits.”

The city of Seattle has never officially sanctioned Nickelsville, even though it’s on public property.  Instead, leaders have pretty much looked the other way, despite problems with drugs and crime.

But city lawmakers are losing patience and want a solution that puts encampments in more appropriate places and makes sure they don’t become permanent.

Rules being considered would shut down Nickelsville, but would allow sanctioned tent cities on certain public and private land in non-residential areas.  Stay would be restricted to one year; no more than 100 campers; and a proven non-profit would have to serve as manager.

“They’re trying to solve the problem of encampments existing in this sort of illegal limbo and providing a way forward that allows that to exist as a viable alternative,” said Tim  Harris, founder of Real Change, who supports the rules.  “There are just not enough options with the churches that exist.”

Montanari admits that there have been issues at Nickelsville, but claims the self-managed community is now working well.

“They’ve gotten rid of all of the problems that they had,” he said.  “They do a really good job on barring people and taking care of that.”

But even homeless advocate Harris admits that it’s time to do something about unregulated homeless communities.

“Nickelsville has been more of a rogue encampment,” Harris said.  “A move might not be the worst thing that could happen to them. Those moves have a way of shaking out the bad elements and offering an opportunity to reorganize.”

The city is expected to come up with rules for tent cities sometime in the next few months.


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  • nwcitizen

    The proposed ordinance may indeed be a step forward in that it officially acknowledges that encampments are a viable interim solution to shelter people and that more such encampments are required to meet the need that already exists. However, the exclusion of such encampments from residential areas is a step backward from the original consent decree by the Court which did allow encampments on private property without that restriction.

    That the people of Nickelsville have been allowed to languish for more than two years without the most basic of hygiene facilities is shameful! I don't see that the proposed legislation does anything to solve that problem.

    • Mark-in-seattle

      Your points are well taken. In my opinion the Seattle City Council dropped the ball when Mayor McGinn's proposal to move Nickelsville to the old Sunny Jim factory with hygiene facilities was not seriously analyzed and possibly improved by the Council. Yes, the site was not on a major bus line and grocery stores were scarce in that part of town, but some accommodations should have been possible. Much of Nickelsville's food for campers is donated and brought in by truck and I think if the campers had been polled the positives (showers, restrooms, dry meeting spaces) would have outweighed the negatives.

      My suspicion; the Seattle Housing & Human Services Dept. which a couple years ago testified before the council (in response to a SLI) that it manages $55 million dollars annually to help reduce homelessness with little to nothing of demonstrable benefit to show for it, insisted on inflating the cost to manage the Sunny Jim encampment project. Number floated was above $1 million. Signs of a classic inter-departmental power struggle. This same dept. classifies handing homeless citizens a resource brochure as "a homeless intervention outreach event". Seriously, during the departments testimony Councilmember Rasmussen expressed shock and awe at the presenters attempts to obfuscate how little actual meaningful help had been delivered cost effectively to the homeless after millions of dollars spent by the Seattle bureaucracy. He worked in City government before joining the Council, he knows waste and a whitewash when he sees it. You can't kid a kidder. Those who know him even moderately well were surprised by, for him, such a strong response. He was more than a little ticked.

      His concerns were genuine, but with only 17 central staff members under it's direct control for all tasks, the City Council is a toothless oversight body. An executive department admitted gross negligence and waste of resources, directly to the legislative members charged with oversight, effecting a very vulnerable population, and NOTHING, at all was done to hold the department to account, which is precisely why the department felt no need to deny it's negligence when pressed by Rasmussen. The City Council does not gain any political advantage by bringing gross incompetence and fraud committed by City departments to light. At best everyone will say "why did it take you so long to notice this awful situation and how are YOU going to solve it", the public employee unions will punish them in November and the handful of citizens who pay attention and applaud their courage don't finance re-election campaigns. There is no appetite for oversight and reform therefore there is never going to be a staff capacity under control of the Council to facilitate it. That's the system and it knows how to protect itself very effectively.

      It would take but a fraction of the $ millions wasted by Seattle HHS to fund a clean, safe and humane Nickelsville, but standing up to powerful executive departments in the very government it has oversight responsibilities for, is to this day considered a bridge too far for nine very risk adverse councilmembers.