The Seattle City Council has called for a Sept. 1 deadline to clear Nickelsville from its West Seattle site, setting up a showdown between city officials and the homeless encampment.
All but two City Council members signed a letter Monday directing Mayor Mike McGinn to offer residents housing and services, then evict them from their camp. It’s something the mayor has been hesitant to do, leaving Nickelsville and its more than 100 residents in legal limbo for two years.
Council members said they’ll budget up to $500,000 to help the residents resettle.
McGinn and Councilmember Nick Licata were working on a plan to open up more city property for homeless encampment sites. Nickelsville has searched for six months to find a church to take its residents in, with no luck. Previous attempts to put the encampment on city land in Sodo or at a Lake City fire station also fell through.
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Monday’s letter indicates a majority of the council has had enough. In the past year, Nickelsville has flooded and been overrun with rats. The community runs with rigidly enforced rules and 24-hour security to keep order, but police are called to the camp often to settle disputes. The FBI is investigating the encampment after the Seattle City Attorney’s Office and Seattle police handed over allegations of criminal conduct.
A neighboring business owner has filed a $1.65 million claim against the city, saying the unauthorized encampment has hurt his property’s value and threatened his ability to insure his land and warehouse.
The mayor, in a tight race for re-election, responded to the council’s letter Monday by saying he has done all he can and now will comply with what the council asked.
“Absent a change in direction by the City Council,” McGinn said, “by September 1 we expect the property to be vacated and we will follow the City Council’s direction to evict those who remain.”
Despite Nickelsville’s problems, those who live there say there is no better option for homeless people who have families and pets.
“It’s healthier than the alternative. These are all people who don’t fit in other types of shelter that are offered,” said resident Mike Keever.
Traditional shelters are crowded and open only at night, offer little or no storage, and separate men and women. At Nickelsville, campers have used cinder blocks, tarps and pallets to build semi-permanent structures where they can live with their pets, partners and kids. The camp has a kitchen and eating area, a shed to keep blankets dry, a bank of portable toilets, bottled water and a tent of donated clothes and supplies.
Keever and his wife, Kim Kowalski, are long-term residents of the encampment, along with their dog, Midnight, and a litter of kittens they are raising. Keever said he could probably find work, but lives at Nickelsville by choice and intends to stay.
The encampment has supporters who have promised to have a “die-in” at the site, forcing officials to physically haul them away “if it comes to bulldozers,” he said.
“I believe in the policy statement that’s being made by these people,” Keever said. “I’m not here for homelessness. I’ve got plenty of career options. But I’m not leaving until the situation is resolved.”
Long-term activists like Keever and Kowalski are part of the challenge for city leaders, but while those residents don’t want traditional shelter, officials believe others do.
The City Council’s letter — signed by all members except Licata and Mike O’Brien — said Nickelsville is a “public health and safety emergency.” Also, nonprofit Food Lifeline would like to buy the encampment property from the city, but the camp has to be cleared before a deal can move forward.
Council members are working with the Union Gospel Mission to find additional shelter, and say they can spend up to $500,000 in general-fund money toward assistance for every resident of the camp.
“No one wants to simply displace campers,” they wrote. “We can provide a route to safe, decent and supportive housing to anyone and everyone at Nickelsville.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter