Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata warned some of his colleagues Wednesday that setting a move-out deadline for the Nickelsville homeless encampment could force a confrontation with police.
Without finding another site for the tent campers to move onto, Licata predicted, “we’re going to be faced with not a good photo op.”
The remarks came after about 100 homeless people and their advocates filled council chambers to protest Monday’s call by seven of nine council members to shut down the encampment that has squatted illegally on vacant city land in West Seattle for the past two years.
More than a dozen Nickelsville and Tent City residents told Licata’s Housing and Human Services Committee that encampments provide a safe alternative to crowded shelters and are the only option for homeless people with families and pets. Many of the City Hall protesters clutched fliers that said, “Without food and shelter, people die.”
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Several speakers also rebutted accusations made over the past few weeks that SHARE, the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort, forces them to join protests and withholds bus tickets and shelter to those who don’t participate.
“No one forced me here today,” said Tanika Creast. “I came because of my own conscience.” She said that many of the highly publicized problems at Nickelsville, including flooding, rats and a lack of police enforcement, could be solved with city authorization of tent encampments.
Jarvis Capucion, who said he has lived at a SHARE-run tent city for the past two years, fought back tears as he described the number of times he has had to turn people away from the encampment because there was no room. Most already had been turned away from other shelters.
“I’m ashamed to have to tell another homeless person, ‘I’m sorry. I’m full.’” He said several of those people had subsequently died of exposure.
But one critic, Karin Ockerman, said Nickelsville organizers don’t allow social-services workers to do outreach at the encampment that would help residents rebuild their lives. She also said there seemed to be no city oversight or even anyone in city government willing to respond to concerns.
Licata and Mayor Mike McGinn have pressed the council to open up more land in the city where encampments could legally remain and receive the benefits of city utilities, police enforcement and outreach services.
But in the letter sent Monday to the mayor, seven council members called Nickelsville a “public health and safety emergency” and pledged $500,000 to help relocate campers into shelters or other housing and offer them social services. The letter said campers would be evicted Sept. 1.
McGinn quickly capitulated, saying Monday that he would follow the council’s direction.
That left Licata and colleague Mike O’Brien, the only members who didn’t sign the letter, arguing that additional encampments could be enhanced with the money their colleagues wanted to spend on case management and outreach.
Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Bruce Harrell, both of whom serve on Licata’s committee, reiterated Wednesday their view that permanent housing is a better solution than tents, but they also signaled a willingness to reconsider tent encampments as an alternative for the homeless, an option the letter seemed to foreclose.
“What would it take to get a church to open up space for 25, 50 people?” Bagshaw asked. She suggested that churches might be willing to make improvements and accept tent encampments if the city were able to offer them some of the $500,000 it proposed to aid the resettlement of Nickelsville residents.
Harrell said he was concerned that Licata’s proposed encampment legislation would open up property in commercial and industrial areas for as long as a year for as many as 100 campers without any right for neighbors to appeal. He also wondered why the legislation didn’t set a limit to the total number of encampments allowed in the city.
“Don’t we want the city to have some role?” Harrell asked.
Most protesters left after the initial public-comment period and staged a “die-in” on the front steps of City Hall. They held signs with the names of homeless people who have died of exposure in King County — 476 since 2000, they said.
Nickelsville resident Trace de Garmo said he appreciated McGinn and the city helping to clean up the site after it flooded last fall, but said he’s discouraged to see city leaders preparing to try to clear it. The encampment’s name is a reference to former Mayor Greg Nickels, who repeatedly ordered police to clear campers from unauthorized locations.
“It’s the same old pattern,” de Garmo said. “You’d think they’d realize it’s not working.”
With most of the residents at the City Hall protests, only about a dozen remained at Nickelsville on Wednesday afternoon. A few camp residents said medical reasons kept them from protesting, but they supported the cause.
Lisa Patterson, who moved into Nickelsville with her 14-year-old daughter in February after relocating from Indiana, said she’s concerned about where others in her situation will end up if Nickelsville is gone.
“It’s not just about us now,” Patterson said. “It’s about future people.”
Seattle Times reporter Anna Boiko-Weyrauch contributed to this report.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes