While I was enrolled in Advanced Multiplatform Journalism, I accepted an article pitch from the International Examiner that called for a writer to tell the story of Nickelsville, a semi-mobile homeless encampment that moved into Seattle’s International District. The article was published online and in print on October 29th. Researching the background of this issue challenged me to navigate conflicting narratives in order to focus on the issue of homelessness at large. I took all the photos and put together the map overlay for this piece.
Nickelsville is up and running at its new location on South Dearborn Street as the city works to approve a six-month permit for the site after initially declining the group’s request to use the plot of land.
Founded in 2008 and named after former mayor Greg Nickels, Nickelsville is a constantly relocating homeless encampment that provides shelter for around 50 people in the Seattle area. Residents of Nickelsville previously had a one-year-stay agreement with neighbors at their Central District location on South Jackson Street, owned by Nickelsville’s partner organization, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). The camp began looking for a new, suitable site to move into by the start of September.
Nickelsville and LIHI announced the move to the International District on August 18, but 11 days later, Mayor Ed Murray released a statement citing significant safety risks at the proposed site.
“Our experts at [the Department of Planning and Development] concluded that there’s a high potential for landslide at the proposed site … and that this potential poses a significant health and safety hazard for encampment inhabitants. We simply cannot ignore these risks,” Murray said in the statement, which concluded by declining to issue a permit for the site.
Because Nickelsville was still obligated to move by the end of the month, the camp was relocated to an interim location at 1312 S. Dearborn Street, a piece of land owned by Washington State Department of Transportation.
LIHI proceeded to hire a geological engineer who conducted a separate investigation and contested the views of the DPD. Over the course of two weeks the DPD eventually reversed its decision and issued a permit for the new location. Gravel paths and trenches for water drainage were installed and Nickelsville finished setting up at its current location on September 17.
The current permit is valid for 30 days and renewable while the city works to issue a longer-term Temporary Land Use permit. This permit will initially be valid for six months and may be extended an additional six months.
Nickelsville was first created in response to former mayor Nickels’ policies concerning the clearing of homeless encampments. Since then the camp has relocated 25 times, according to resident Richard Gilbert. Now known as Nickelsville’s de facto historian, Gilbert has been a “Nickelodeon” since the very beginning. He is also the designer of the pink, wooden structures that line the front of the camp.
The camp’s moving plans prompted the community organization Friends of Little Saigon to send a letter to the Seattle City Council and LIHI asking to delay the move. Friends of Little Saigon is a community organization that promotes economic development and the vitality of the neighborhood. The letter, written by board president Tam Nguyen, cited a lack of “due process and communication,” and questioned the strategic planning of the move.
Nguyen said he is concerned about how the recent developments will affect neighborhood businesses and the image of Little Saigon. “The city doesn’t want to deal with a complicated issue like this,” Nguyen said in an interview, “and the Vietnamese community here is vulnerable.”
A main concern among community members is that Nickelsville moved to the International District because the community there would passively comply.
But since the August announcement, representatives from Nickelsville and LIHI have held community meetings to address questions and concerns regarding the encampment, and the community has been supportive, says Sharon Lee, Executive Director of LIHI.
The site is currently owned by housing developer Coho Real Estate, which has given its approval to LIHI and Nickelsville to use the land at 1001 S. Dearborn Street free of charge.
Nickelsville’s new location doesn’t have many immediate neighbors besides Interstates 5 and 90. One of the closest businesses is the Goodwill, whose officials are supportive of the Dearborn location.
“Today Nickelsville homeless sites provide a necessary service for those struggling in our community,” says Catherine McConnell, Seattle Goodwill’s Vice-President, in a news release concerning the move. In a former location where Goodwill offered support, Nickelsville was “a well-organized community with requirements that included a zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol; they were self-managed, providing their own security and cleaning,” she said.
And according to Lee, Nickelsville has successfully helped more than 100 men, women, and children move into permanent or transitional housing.
“There’s a problem with shelters being full at night,” she said, going on to explain that Nickelsville regularly sees mothers with young children seeking shelter at night, especially on weekends when many social services are closed. But the 40-person site on Dearborn can barely keep up with demand. A sign on the security booth reads “no intakes until further notice, full!”
The encampment is often close or full to capacity, but the group still makes an effort to help those seeking shelter. “I won’t turn down a family,” said Herman Kahaloa, a resident of six months who was working the security booth when I visited the camp. Kahaloa went on to describe how Nickelsville has been a helpful stopgap solution for him and many others in the process of saving money for more permanent housing.
Murray has come out in support of homeless encampments as an important stopgap solution for Seattle’s growing homeless populations, yet local neighborhood support for encampments similar to Nickelsville is still hard to come by. Both Tent City 3 (under I-5 on Ravenna Boulevard NE) and the Ave Foundation (formerly in front of the post office on University Way NE) recently received notices from the city to evacuate their locations.
Lee is also part of the Unsheltered Homelessness Task Force, announced by the mayor’s office on October 17. Murray created the task force, he said, to slow the increase in homelessness in Seattle, which has increased by 30 percent since 2010.
The task force will work to define the legal processes of permitting authorized homeless camps in Seattle, including “where encampments are located, how new sites for legal encampments are identified and how neighborhoods are consulted.”