Seattle Mayor Ed Murray wants to locate the city’s third authorized homeless encampment near the Othello light-rail station in Rainier Valley.

Share story

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is putting the city’s third authorized homeless encampment on a pair of vacant private lots near the Othello light-rail station in Rainier Valley.

The Low Income Housing Instituteand Nickelsville received a permit last week to open an encampment with 33 tents and 12 tiny houses on the properties between Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and Renton Avenue South, about two blocks south of the light-rail station. The new encampment could open as soon as next week.

The mayor and the City Council passed an ordinance last March allowing the city to authorize, regulate and help pay for three encampments with up to 100 people each. In June, officials identified as preferred sites three Seattle City Light properties in Ballard, Interbay and the Industrial District.

The Ballard and Interbay encampments opened in November but the Industrial District site was recently deemed unsafe, so the Murray administration turned to the Rainier Valley properties, Sola Plumacher, director of the Human Services Department community-support and assistance division, said during a community meeting about the proposal last Tuesday at the NewHolly Gathering Hall.

This week, save 75% on select subscriptions.

The Housing Institute owns the Rainier Valley properties and ultimately hopes to build 100 affordable-housing units and a food bank on them, Executive Director Sharon Lee said.

That work won’t begin for some years, Lee said. Under the ordinance, an authorized encampment can operate at a location for no more than two years in a row.

The encampments are different from the many unauthorized ones cropping up along Interstate 5, in parks and under bridges. Residents receive regular case-management services with support from the city, and must follow regulations.

The sites also are different from encampments connected with religious institutions such as churches, which the city exempts from permitting constraints.

The ordinance bars authorized encampments from residential zones. The Rainier Valley site borders an apartment complex but is zoned for commercial use.

Some of the approximately 100 people at last week’s meeting said they would welcome an encampment, while others expressed concerns.

John Robert Jones, 59, said the plan is proof officials don’t respect South Seattle.

“This is being rammed down our throats,” he said. “They took us by surprise. This is what they do to us in the South End. They don’t ask for our input. They just do it.”

Jones said he believes residents of the authorized encampment will remain sober and under control while at the site but maybe not elsewhere in the neighborhood.

“We have schools and parks,” Jones said. “They’ll just walk down the street to drink their high-volume beer and smoke their marijuana in areas where kids play.”

Maria McDaniel, 55, disagreed with Jones. Both have lived in the area for decades.

“This encampment will be a good thing,” she said. “I get frustrated when people blame the homeless for crime. That’s such a simplistic, easy way out.”

Councilmember Bruce Harrell said he knew the encampment would be “a tough pill to swallow” for neighbors but described it as necessary.

Emergency order

Nickelsville operates the Ballard encampment and SHARE operates the Interbay encampment. Both nonprofit organizations have had ties to homeless-services activist Scott Morrow, a controversial figure in the homeless community.

The Housing Institute partners with Nickelsville in Ballard and with SHARE in Interbay, responsible for city funding for the encampments and case-management services to the residents.

Drugs and alcohol will be prohibited in the encampment, Nickelsville representatives said at the meeting. Sex offenders will be barred, and residents will take turns working security at the gate and other duties.

Residents may include individuals, couples and families with children and pets, the Nickelsville representatives said.

The authorized-encampments ordinance requires that a community meeting be held at least 14 days before the organization proposing a site applies for a city permit. But the Housing Institute applied before last week’s meeting.

That’s because the City Council approved a Murray emergency order last month allowing the administration to speed up the process for a third encampment, Lee said.

There are now 20 to 25 people at the Ballard encampment and 40 to 50 at the Interbay encampment, Lee said. Together, they have served 239 individuals or families. Though 231 have accepted case-management services, only 13 have moved into permanent housing and five into shelters, Housing Institute case manager Charese Jones said.

Neither encampment has electricity thus far, even though both are on City Light property. Officials were initially unsure about providing electricity but have decided to make it available, Plumacher said.

Running water may be provided soon at the Ballard encampment through a temporary meter on a fire hydrant, she added.

Ballard camp

Jody Grage, an 80-year-old retired teacher who lives near the Ballard site, has been supplying it with jugs of water she fills with her garden hose.

“There haven’t been any problems (with the site) for me, and I’m two blocks away,” Grage said Wednesday, showing a reporter around the compound, sandwiched between a Veterans of Foreign Wars post and the Sloop Tavern on Northwest Market Street. “The support from the community is pretty strong.”

Related video: Navigating displacement in Othello, CD and more

In Seattle, the risk of displacement is highest in neighborhoods that have historically been communities of color – the most affordable areas are in the greatest danger. Read more. (Bettina Hansen and Corinne Chin / The Seattle Times)

The encampment is enclosed by a fence. Inside, some residents have decorated their temporary homes with potted plants. The sidewalk outside was spotless.

Michael Shepherd, whose family owns the Red Mill Totem House hamburger restaurant nearby, across from the Ballard Locks, agreed with Grage.

“The experience with the authorized encampment has been good — no issues, no problems whatsoever,” Shepherd said. “Everything is on the up and up over there.”

What bothers Shepherd are unauthorized encampments like the one on Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) land across Northwest Market Street from the restaurant.

“SDOT hasn’t cleaned it in two or three months,” he said. “There were three or four tents before. Now there are 12 to 14. The people there don’t want to follow any rules. I’m concerned for the kids who work here at night being threatened and intimidated.”

Like Shepherd, Angie Gerrald, a Ballard mother who takes walks past the Market Street site, is upset about the unauthorized encampments, which she said have been accompanied by public dumping, property crime and drug dealing.

Those problems became worse around the same time the authorized encampment opened, she said, suggesting people turned away by Nickelsville might be responsible.

“This has invited a whole new population into the neighborhood,” Gerrald said.

The ordinance requires site operators to organize and report to community-advisory committees at regular meetings. The committees for the Ballard and Interbay encampments have each met once, and police are tracking crime in the vicinity to determine whether it changes, said Plumacher, the Human Services Department official.

Different dynamic

Rainier Valley neighbors asked at last Tuesday’s meeting about a Nickelsville encampment hosted by a church on private property near the Chinatown International District.

Residents at the South Dearborn Street site recently voted to oust Morrow as staff, leading the church to announce it would shut them down, amid accusations of problem behavior at the encampment.

Residents at Nickelsville and SHARE encampments have rebelled against Morrow before, with varied results.

Rainier Valley neighbors shouldn’t worry about similar turmoil because the new site, unlike the Dearborn encampment, will have city oversight and support, Morrow said.

“The dynamic here is going to be completely different from Dearborn,” he argued.

Children’s play area

The Rainier Valley encampment will have a kitchen tent, a community tent, a counseling tent, a play area for children, portable toilets, hand-washing stations and dumpsters, Lee said.

Matt Hannahs, 32, lives at the Ballard site, having moved there in November from Dearborn — long before trouble erupted at that location over the weekend. He said people in Rainier Valley shouldn’t be afraid of what’s coming.

Reading a paperback while working security Wednesday morning, Hannahs said Nickelsville has worked well for him and his son, who’s now going to school in Ballard.

“People are always worried about having a bunch of drug dealers and drunks walking around,” he said. “But the opposite is true, because we require sobriety. When we’re walking around we’re checking on stuff and picking up garbage. When we see anything out of the ordinary we call the cops. We actually love proving people wrong.”

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness opposes authorized encampments, describing them as a distraction from moving people inside. But Grage, the volunteer water-supplier, said she believes the Ballard encampment is worthwhile.

“Some people complain this is a Band-Aid (for the homelessness problem). Well, the patient is bleeding to death,” Grage said. “We’ll take the Band-Aid, thank you.”