Only two organizations have applied and been approved to operate new, city-regulated homeless encampments in Seattle.

Share story

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and the City Council went out on a limb in March when they decided to allow and oversee up to three new homeless encampments for up to 100 people each on city or private land.

Three months later, however, just two organizations have been approved as encampment operators, fewer than the mayor hoped for. And there are questions about where the funding will come from to move so many people off the streets.

Only SHARE and Nickelsville sought approval this spring from the Seattle Human Services Department (HSD), which accepted applications through May 14.

Both have ties to homeless-services activist Scott Morrow and have been embroiled in controversies before. SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort) recently lost King County funding for its indoor shelters.

The HSD has cleared both organizations, though, naming them to a roster of eligible operators. It will accept another round of applications at the end of the year, for 2016.

“The mayor is personally disappointed that more providers have not stepped forward to help operate the city’s authorized encampments,” spokesman Viet Shelton said.

Shelton added: “That said, the mayor is committed to working with the existing providers to open authorized encampments. He will also continue to reach out to other potential providers and faith-based groups to explore if they are willing to step forward.”

HSD Director Catherine Lester said the pair of encampment operators will be sufficient for now. Her agency had been working with several religious organizations on homeless services and Lester thought one or more might apply, but none did, she said.

“These are two very interested applicants, so there are opportunities for us to be in partnership with them over the next year and learn from what we do together to figure out whether there are other partners that need to be at the table, too,” Lester said.

Political climate

The new ordinance is a departure from how the city previously handled tent cities.

The council passed a bill in 2011 allowing religious institutions to host encampments, and some other tent cities have operated legally by moving every few months.

But council members reluctant to sanction outdoor living rejected a bill in 2013 authorizing long-term encampments on private, nonreligious sites or public land.

The political climate was different this year when Murray proposed something similar. He cited an increase in illegal camping, calling encampments regulated by the city a safer option, and his bill had support from new Councilmember Kshama Sawant.

SHARE and Nickelsville have experience running homeless encampments. SHARE established its first tent city in 1990, and Nickelsville launched its first in 2008.

Both organizations describe their encampments as self-managed, with residents making decisions. SHARE has been lauded for sheltering needy people cheaply but also has been accused of forcing inappropriate rules on tent-city residents.

Residents of the current Nickelsville encampment briefly ousted Morrow in January, voting to withdraw their support of him being associated with the group.

The residents later voted to reinstate him after the church hosting the encampment on South Dearborn Street near Interstate 5 threatened to give them the boot.

Worried about money

The Seattle Department of Preservation and Development (DPD) will by Aug. 10 complete a list of city-owned properties suitable for authorized encampments to use. The operators will need to apply for permits and sign leases in order to use the sites.

The Murray administration’s goal is to get at least one new tent city up and running by the end of the year, HSD Deputy Director Jason Johnson said.

But only about $75,000 remain in the 2015 budget to help fund operations at encampments, including tent cities that already exist, like SHARE’s Tent City 3.

While the council has allocated $100,000 more for encampments in 2016, a one-time appropriation of $200,000 to carry out recommendations by Murray’s task force on unsheltered homelessness has already been spent on other needs, Johnson said.

SHARE and Nickelsville have told the HSD that they estimate it will cost at least $100,000 a year to operate a single authorized encampment, said Johnson.

“They’re going to have to lean on fundraising and in-kind donations, just like other nonprofits,” Johnson said. “The city’s funding should leverage other opportunities.”

But Jarvis Capucion, a SHARE board member, said his organization is worried about money. SHARE recently lost $20,000 in funding from the county for its indoor shelters.

To complicate matters further, Nickelsville is busy with a separate, tiny-house project and has asked SHARE to take the lead on authorized encampments, Capucion said.

Morrow declined to comment.

Lester didn’t mention encampments Thursday in a presentation to the council’s housing committee about a recently completed homelessness-investment analysis.

Murray ordered the analysis in response to concerns about how efficiently and effectively the HSD is dealing with Seattle’s persistent problem.

The agency spent $40.8 million in 2014 on homeless services, outpacing most other major U.S. cities.

The largest chunk, $28.68 million, was invested in intervention strategies, such as night shelters, transitional housing and hygiene drop-in centers. The HSD spent only $4.55 million on prevention strategies and just $7.59 million on permanent housing.

The HSD needs to focus more on prevention, Lester told the council. But that doesn’t necessarily mean officials are making a mistake by supporting tent cities, she said.

“We have to think about how we move further upstream while recognizing that an ongoing commitment to survival strategies is important,” Lester said.

“We recognize there aren’t enough shelters, so this ability to partner with organizations like SHARE on encampments is part of that survival strategy piece.”

Information in this article, originally published June 19, 2015, was corrected June 20, 2015. A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to a Seattle Department of Preservation and Development. It is the Department of Planning and Development.