Nickelsville is about to lose its present site near the Chinatown International District after its residents voted to cut ties with longtime organizer Scott Morrow.
Seattle’s best-known homeless encampment is on the verge of losing its site just as the City Council begins to consider a proposal by Mayor Ed Murray to authorize and regulate up to three additional tent cities on city or private land.
Nickelsville, a roving community first established in 2008 during the administration of then-Mayor Greg Nickels, has since September 2014 been on a grassy hillside near Interstate 5 and near the Chinatown International District.
But in an email Friday, the church that hosts Nickelsville there withdrew its support, citing a Jan. 29 decision by the encampment’s residents, known as “Nickelodeons,” to sever ties with longtime organizer Scott Morrow.
“It saddens us to inform you of the serious consequences of your recent vote of no confidence in staff person Scott Morrow,” the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd’s Rev. Steven Olsen wrote in an email.
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“Scott’s role as staff person for the camp and liaison for the church host is an essential component of our working relationship. For this reason, your decision makes it impossible for us to continue as church host for Nickelsville,” Olsen added.
Olsen’s church controls the site under an agreement with property owner Coho Real Estate. The church has served as Nickelsville’s official host because a city law passed in 2011 allows religious entities to host tent cities with no permit and no time limit.
The Low Income Housing Institute, a financial backer of Nickelsville, also is abandoning the encampment, said the organization’s executive director, Sharon Lee.
“We have no confidence in the residents right now,” Lee said. “They’re not following the rules of self-management and they also voted out Scott Morrow.”
Nickelsville currently has about three dozen residents.
Anthony Jenkins and Lisa Hooper, two current Nickelsville residents, said they voted against Morrow because he had been threatening to take away resources, such as portable toilets, over a disagreement. Remaining residents are in talks with a different church and are hoping for an opportunity to operate Nickelsville themselves, Jenkins said.
“We just want a chance,” said Hooper, sitting inside the encampment’s tent kitchen Friday. “We can do this effectively.”
Involved with Nickelsville since its inception, Morrow refers to himself as a staff person and sometimes sleeps there. Real Change first reported his ouster.
Morrow addressed the vote in a Jan. 30 email, noting that Nickelsville’s nonprofit organization is $15,000 in debt. He promised to work to pay back the money if the encampment’s residents can’t find another organization to step in.
Morrow lamented not spending enough time at the encampment recently. In addition to his work at Nickelsville, he runs SHARE/WHEEL, an organization that manages two separate tent cities.
Nickelsville residents aren’t the first to break with Morrow, and SHARE/WHEEL has been accused of forcing homeless people into activism. In 2012, most people living in SHARE/WHEEL’s Tent City 4 on the Eastside left to establish a new community, Camp Unity.
Herman Kahaloa, 60, a former Nickelsville resident, said the encampment has been wracked in recent months by tension between newer and longtime residents. Kahaloa left Dec. 19, fed up with a new group of leaders.
The tension reached City Hall this week as Nickelsville residents and residents of SHARE/WHEEL’s Tent City 3 sat apart and eyed each other during a meeting of the council’s land-use committee.
Nickelsville’s current trouble shouldn’t turn the council against tent cities in general, Lee said. But in his email, Olsen issued a warning.
“We have all been part of the long struggle which has led to a recognition by city government of the importance of such communities as a part of the answer to the problem of homeless in Seattle. If Nickelsville allows its carefully wrought covenant with the church, the community, the property owner, and its own constituents to fall apart, this whole movement will suffer immeasurable damage.”