The Nickelsville Blame Game

As Emily Heffter of the Seattle Times first reported this morning, seven city council members have delivered a letter to Mayor Mike McGinn today asking that Nickelsville – the well-known homeless encampment – be closed by Sept. 1. The letter also indicates that the council will designate $500,000 from the city’s general fund to be used for housing and services for Nickelsville residents.

The letter (included in this post) also instructs Seattle’s Department of Human Services to provide “immediate targeted outreach and engagement services to Nickelsville along with immediate provision of shelter, housing and other services.” A source tells the Times that the council is currently in discussions with the Union Gospel Mission to provide housing.

The letter, which was signed by seven city council members – everyone but Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien – comes in reaction to efforts to maintain Nickelsville as an option for providing transitional housing, and expand the use of encampments on public and private land – similar to City Council member Licata efforts to provide a framework for opening up city-owned and church-owned property for the use of homeless encampments.

According to Real Change’s Tim Harris, the letter signifies that Licata’s proposal “appears to be dead.”

“It beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick,” says Harris of the $500,000 to be used for housing and services. “But it’s a stop-gap measure.”

“I think we make it really clear that the encampments are not the best option,” says council member Tom Rasmussen, one of the letter’s signers. “We want to help the individuals that are there to find other places to live. ... The goal is to have a constructive, positive way of resolving this issue.”

According to Harris, the “elephant in the room” that the letter fails to address is the pending closure of the city’s seasonal emergency shelters, cheduled for Friday. Harris says this closure will mean the disappearance of 215 beds currently serving the homeless, and will only add to the problem that an encampment like Nickelsville is a product of.

The real issue, according to Harris, is an acute shortage of emergency services in Seattle.

“I don’t really see this doing much to solve the overall problem of the shelter shortage, but I do think that it allows the city to close down Nickelsville in a way that appears responsible,” says Harris. “It doesn’t really get to the need.”

Harris views the letter as more of a political tool than an actual problem solver. In his estimation, the letter represents the city council pushing the ball into McGinn’s court, an attempt to force the mayor into what would be an unquestionably bad photo-op, especially during campaign season.

“From the beginning on Nickelsville there’s been this sort of blame shifting between the mayor’s office and the council,” says Harris. “Nobody wants to be responsible for making the decision to send in the police and shut down Nickelsville.”

Rasmussen says that after a roughly two-month voluntary period (from July until September), any resident who refused to leave Nickelsville would be treated as a trespasser. However, Rasmussen stresses that the goal is to provide assistance and get people into “either permanent or temporary places to stay that are not encampments.”

Aaron Pickus, a spokesperson for McGinn, expects the mayor to have a comment on the letter by sometime this afternoon. This post will be updated accordingly once that happens.

UPDATE: In a statement sent to Seattle Weekly this afternoon, McGinn indicates he will follow the City Council's direction and work to clear Nickelsville by Sept. 1. Here's the full statement:

"I appreciate the work of Councilmembers Licata and O'Brien for working on expanding legal options for encampments, which built upon the work of an advisory task force I assembled in my first year in office. For some time we have delayed enforcement of the law against encampments on industrial lands while the City Council examined these proposals to provide more opportunities for legal encampments in the City of Seattle. In light of the City Council's clear statement of intent that they will not expand encampments further, and that they expect Nickelsville to clear the property by September 1, motivated in part by the desire to sell this property to Food Lifeline, I have no further basis to not enforce the law.

"We will provide additional services, including extended winter shelter hours through the summer. Absent a change in direction by the City Council, by September 1 we expect the property to be vacated and we will follow the City Council's direction to evict those who remain."

And here's the letter that inspired it:

Nickelsville Letter

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