Welcome to Nickelsville

The mayor has become public enemy #1 for a defiant group of homeless organizers. But is he being unfairly singled out?

 With a wink and a nod, they call themselves the Nickelodeons. And for the past 10 weeks, they've been coming in growing numbers Wednesday mornings to the lobby of the Josephinum, a low-income housing building in downtown Seattle.  Over Fruit Loops and Honey Smacks eaten from small Styrofoam bowls, the Nickelodeons, who are homeless, strategize about building a modern-day shantytown. They'll name it after Mayor Greg Nickels—a sort of backhanded tribute to the man whose administration has been kicking them out of the city's parks and greenbelts with increasing vigor, while at the same time hesitating to create new shelter space. The meetings are run with such attention to process that this could just as easily be a gathering of city bureaucrats, save for the participants' disheveled appearance and the fact that sometimes someone will fall asleep at the table. The group is broken up into various subcommittees—public relations, legal, logistics, site selection. Each gives its report, and there's a sheet of white paper on the wall on which ideas are catalogued with a black Sharpie. Votes are taken, but only after a proposal's been moved and seconded. And anyone who speaks before they are recognized is gently reprimanded. Today's discussion is about the importance of having Nickelsville emerge overnight as a community, one complete with its own barbershop, church, medical personnel, and social services. The idea is that the more self-sustaining it appears, the harder it will be for the mayor and his henchmen to bulldoze it. One man asks if the place is going to be built to code, to which Craig Corey, who's leading the meeting, answers: "Code is the farthest thing from our minds. Code rhymes with cold, and we're against it." This elicits affirmative nods and some knowing chuckles around the table. Corey, the Nickelodeons' stern yet affable chairman, often injects a goofy, grandfatherly brand of wisdom into the planning. He looks the part of spiritual guide, with round, wire-rimmed glasses, a Santa-length salt-and-pepper beard, and long black hair gently tucked into a ponytail. He came to Seattle six years ago from Kansas when his ex-wife moved their daughter here. He's been homeless most of this time, and lived for a while in West Seattle's Lincoln Park, where he says those with homes nearby would often offer him food. At 54, Corey suffers from emphysema and can't work because of a disability exacerbated by 30 years of driving truck. He walks with a cane and often coughs violently. Today, the fundraising subcommittee reports good news. They've managed to raise some cash—about $200—from a car wash held in a parking lot on Aurora Avenue the previous week. Another organizer reports she's found a nonprofit, Veterans for Peace, to share its 501(c)(3) status with the Nickelodeons. But the trickiest task is finding a place to put Nickelsville. The site-selection process is a closely guarded secret, because the element of surprise is critical; it's one aspect of the plan that's rarely discussed openly among committee members. The effort was also stymied early on by the inability to secure a vehicle for scouting. The energy behind Nickelsville is as much political as practical. "The purpose is to relieve the constipation of the political process," says organizer Caleb Poirier. With shaggy brown hair and an oversized checkered shirt, Poirier looks like your average kid a couple years out of college. He says he moved to Seattle from Ann Arbor, Mich., two years ago after severe depression landed him on the street and he no longer wanted to run into friends and family. "I wanted to go where no one knew my name," he explains. Poirier describes himself and the other Nickelsville organizers as "high-functioning" homeless because of their ability to see beyond the basic needs of daily survival. But the shantytown isn't going to be limited to them. They're hoping for hundreds of people to help build and settle it on an unannounced late-summer night. For now, Poirier, like many of the organizers, lives in one of the tent cities—roving, legal encampments run by the homeless and organized by Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE) and Women's Housing and Equality Enhancement League (WHEEL). "There isn't a perfect solution to poverty," Poirier says. "So imperfect solutions [like Nickelsville] need to be entertained." Though it took root this summer, the seed for Nickelsville was planted years ago with the creation of the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. The idea, as the name suggests, is to end homelessness by building more permanent low-income housing, and to lead people toward self-sufficiency by weaning them (and cities) off stopgap measures like shelters. It's an idea that Nickels has bought into—and one that is arguably not working. Spawned by the Bush administration, the initiative gives local governments that have adopted 10-year plans a better shot at McKinney-Vento dollars, competitive federal funds named for the late Reps. Stewart McKinney (R-Conn.) and Bruce Vento (D-Minn.). Most local jurisdictions rely on these funds to pay for transitional and permanent supportive housing for the homeless. King County in 2007 received more than $20 million in McKinney-Vento dollars. The objective is to build 9,500 new affordable and low-income units by 2015. Two and a half years after implementation, the committee that oversees the 10-year plan (Nickels is on the 23-member governing board, along with King County Executive Ron Sims) reports that 1,449 units have been built and another 1,411 are in the works. But these numbers don't take into account the number of low-income units lost during this period. According to the Seattle Displacement Coalition, 3,511 low-income units have been lost since 2005 in Seattle alone due to condo conversion, demolition, or speculative sale. Furthermore, advocates say local leaders are overlooking an important tenet of the plan, a directive found on its introductory page: to recognize that homeless people "are at an immediate personal risk and have a basic right to safety" and that "interim survival mechanisms" are necessary until "affordable permanent housing is available to all." Nickelsville organizers say their daily experience trying to find shelter or watching others struggle without it proves that the 10-year plan isn't working. And some advocates, after cheering along for a couple of years, are beginning to wonder as well. "The official position is that we're not going to build any more shelters because we want to put all of our resources into permanent solutions," says Bill Hobson, executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which provides 300 emergency shelter beds and receives a portion of its funding from the city. "I have been a guy that's advocated this myself, but I'm going home to a warm bed tonight—and our data shows that there are 2,600 souls who are going to sleep outside tonight." Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, a group that includes shelter providers, advocates, and the homeless, says that some, including Nickels, "bought into the erroneous idea that addressing the permanent problem relieves you of addressing the immediate need. This doesn't pass the common-sense test." Eisinger's coalition organizes the One Night Count—an annual volunteer effort to tabulate the number of homeless living in King County—which this year tallied 5,808 people sleeping in shelters and 2,631 more sleeping on the street, the latter number a 15 percent increase over 2007. Hobson says there's rarely a night that his shelters aren't full, a situation echoed by other area providers. "Some people think there's a portion of people who prefer to sleep outside. That's b.s.," he says. "I think people give up looking for shelter." After months of repeated requests and protests, the mayor last week opened new shelter space, 35 beds, in a building the city owns in South Lake Union—proof, says Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, that Nickels is responding to the need. But it's the first time during Nickels' administration, not including seasonal emergency shelters, that the city has created new shelter space—a hollow gesture, says Eisinger. "The city has created new shelter to respond to the...crisis that it manufactured," she says. "There is a finite amount of money available to do this," counters Ceis. "Right now the city spends about $40 million [per year] in housing and services for the homeless. We are looking for cities in south King County and on the Eastside to step up. The overall preponderance of shelter beds are in the city of Seattle. I would like some help." As for the 10-year plan and Seattle's stake in it, Ceis says, "We didn't buy into the 10-year plan because it's a federal mandate. We bought into the 10-year plan because it's the right strategy and it makes sense." On a warmer Wednesday morning Nickelsville organizers are meeting again, this time over Apple Jacks and Cheerios. This time there's good news from the site-selection committee: Three possible locations for the encampment have been found, and three probable ones will be surveyed later in the week. But other critical efforts, like lining up onsite social-service providers and securing nonprofit status, are languishing. And a small request—getting somebody new to record minutes—is met by a barrage of blank stares and a round of excuses. "I can't do that," says one woman. "My hearing's not so great," says another. Beatrice, who declined to provide her last name and who chairs the site-selection subcommittee, says she's frustrated by the unwillingness of some to participate. "Everyone just shows up and expects to get credit, but a core group of us are doing all the work. I'm getting tired of it." (Tent City residents who attend Nickelsville meetings are awarded one community credit for their effort. They're required to earn one credit every two weeks to live there.) Later, a suggestion that subcommittee heads meet before the following Wednesday to better organize their reports triggers groans from all, especially Beatrice. "It's the same two or three of us who are on all of the subcommittees," she explains, adding that they've already got their hands full just keeping up with the weekly to-do list. Others appear to be worried that scheduling more meetings will only bog down their effort and mimic the society that's rejected them. Corey, who's again running the meeting, attempts to silence the grumbles. "Bureaucracy is an inevitability of a project this size," he explains. "We haven't been infected yet, but we will be." Today as on most days, Corey's wearing a gray trucker's hat with "Endless Mountain Stone Co." embroidered across the front and an "I [heart] Tent City" button fastened on the side. Though there's been some angst among committee members, Corey is still optimistic that the Nickelodeons can pull the project off. He says Nickelsville will be a success, "A, if it happens, and B, if it lasts long enough to accomplish what we're trying to initiate: more shelter and more affordable housing." "Most people underestimate the enormity of the scope of what we're proposing here," Corey continues. "Considering that, we're doing well. The biggest challenge is to find a site that won't get us arrested." In addition to Corey, who in the past has negotiated with the city on behalf of SHARE, the group has help from another old hand: Scott Morrow, who helped found SHARE and has spent nearly two decades keeping tent cities alive. While SHARE officially supports Nickelsville, it's not taking a leadership role. Morrow left SHARE's staff earlier this month (though he's still a paid consultant for the group) so that he could devote more time to the Nickelsville effort—and so there would be no confusion about who's behind it. As with the tent cities, Morrow prefers to remain behind the scenes and refuses to be quoted for print. He says this is because he doesn't want to be misconstrued as the leader of the movement. But although he leaves it to other committee members to make decisions using the democratic forum they've established, he's often looked to for guidance and comic relief when the discussions drag on. At one meeting, Morrow halfheartedly relays a message that they might get more support from community organizations if they changed the name of the shantytown to something a little less hostile to the mayor. This, as expected, draws immediate boos around the table. A subsequent motion that they change the name to "Greg Nickelsville" instead gets a loud round of cheers. But in singling out Nickels, are they picking on the right guy? "There is a huge need out there, but in some ways it's beating up on the easiest target rather than the people who aren't stepping forward—and that's too bad," says Bill Block, project director for King County's 10-year plan. "I guess I'd like to hear what they're thinking, related to calling it Nickelsville and not Bushville," says Rev. Rick Reynolds, director of Operation Nightwatch, an organization that coordinates with shelters in an often-futile effort to find available beds. "I think the mayor's probably doing what he can to keep all of his constituencies happy. You'd like the city to do more, but the city shouldn't be the only one." Still, Reynolds says, the lack of shelter space in Seattle is a problem: "They say we should put people directly into apartments. How does that happen? I'd just like to know: Where?" City Council member Nick Licata is similarly dubious. "We are going to have homeless people no matter how many low-income housing units we provide. It's a societal problem," he says. "You can't give up on emergency shelter. You need emergency beds. The manifestation of that need is when we're talking about encampments in parks." But council member Tim Burgess, who chairs the committee that oversees human services, argues that the tension between short-term and long-term solutions is healthy. "I think the 10-year plan and the public policy underpinning that plan are still sound," he says. Tension reached a new level in May following the city's sweep of Kinnear Park and an adjacent Queen Anne greenbelt, where more than 40 homeless campers were evicted. The mayor's office boasted in a June 5 press release that the "clean-up of illegal encampments [near Kinnear yielded] 21 tons of debris, including used hypodermic needles, rotting cans of food, bottles of urine, and human waste." But many who camp in the greenbelt also reported losing all their possessions. One, who would only be identified as B.J., says the city took his collection of tools, which he valued at $200 to $300. The mayor's executive order, which this spring formalized the process for the sweeps, requires the city to post notice 72 hours before they go in and to provide a place where the homeless can retrieve their belongings. However, the retrieval site, a city-owned warehouse near the West Seattle Bridge, is relatively remote, making this an impossibility for many—prompting at least a dozen people to file claims for damages with the city's Risk Management Division (dozens more are in the works). For his part, Licata sent a letter to the risk management director last week asking that the city consider the liability issues involved with the sweeps and change its policy to mitigate future losses. Now 67 and retired, B.J. says he used to work for Boeing and at one time picked lettuce for a living. His pension, while it affords him some luxuries—like the confiscated tools—isn't enough to pay for a place to live. Dressed in a navy-blue parka and a baseball cap with the word "Saigon" scrawled across the front, B.J., who's missing most of his front teeth, emerges one morning from a densely wooded area south of Kinnear Park with his chow-mix named Rusty. He says he's lived in the greenbelt for about two years, and is building a small two-stroke steam engine that he hopes will power his handcart and help him get around town. B.J. reports that many homeless have returned to the greenbelt in the weeks following the sweep, an observation seconded by Julie Stephenson, the director of CityTeam Ministries, a shelter that abuts the greenbelt. It's just that they have to be cleaner now. "I'm like a Boy Scout," says B.J. "I tell everyone to pack everything in and pack everything out." The two-day sweep was expensive: $27,866 for staff, a rented tractor, portable toilets, safety equipment, immunizations, and dump fees. According to Eisinger, it's about half of what the city spends to house 75 people during the entire six-month season at its emergency winter shelter in the basement of City Hall. "It's shocking and frankly baffling in its counterproductiveness," Eisinger says of the sweeps. "It creates a zero-tolerance policy for people sleeping outside when the city is well aware of the fact that the shelters are full and that there are several thousand people without shelter on any given night." The city says it provides outreach and shelter beds for the people it boots from the greenbelts, but shelter operators say that simply displaces some of the 2,600 people still in need of a place to sleep. "If the sweeps issue has done anything," says Hobson, "it has forced us to think more about where we're going with the 10-year plan. Maybe we should reexamine the whole idea of shelter. I hope it forces us to do that." Meanwhile, Ceis says that in the next couple of weeks the city will be cleaning up the greenbelt on Beacon Hill's west slope, an area called "the jungle" for its remote location and reputed lawlessness. Predictably, Seattle's progressive neighbor to the south has already created its own Nickelsville-like experiment. In 2001, after a months-long standoff with a group of homeless people camped under bridges downtown, Portland city officials agreed to let them build a permanent place to live outside, but required that they move seven miles north to the grounds of a leaf-recycling facility. Dignity Village still exists today, though it hasn't quite reached the utopian status imagined by its founders. Residents live rent-free on a city-owned 1.2-acre patch of asphalt, but are expected to pay utilities and liability insurance as part of a Memorandum of Understanding negotiated with the city. The agreement, which also caps the encampment's population at 60, expires in 2010. They have running water and solar-heated showers, but use porta-potties instead of actual toilets, as a sewer system proved cost-prohibitive. Residents of Dignity Village—a nonprofit with its own governing board—share a phone, computers for job searching, a cooking area, and a community room with a wood stove. Many of their semi-permanent structures were built "green" with salvaged and environmentally friendly materials, an effort assisted by nearby universities. "For a certain percentage of the homeless population, it's a good place to live," says Sally Erickson, homeless program manager for the City of Portland's Bureau of Housing and Community Development. "About a quarter of the residents move into permanent housing, a better percentage than most shelters." (Seattle Downtown Emergency Service Center spokesperson Nicole Macri confirms that percentage is higher than most shelters experience here. But she cautions that success rates depend on the size of the shelter and the availability of transitional or permanent housing in the area.) Although it receives some private donations, Dignity Village has required substantial financial help from the city, which since 2001 has spent about $200,000 on site improvements, including electrical and water lines, drainage, paving, and fencing. This year, the city covered the $11,000 the village owed for liability insurance when residents couldn't come up with the cash. "They've really struggled with paying the bills," Erickson says. "They initially told us, 'Give us land. We'll be self-sustaining.' But they've actually needed more help from the city. And they haven't gotten the kind of community support that they'd hoped for." While Dignity Village has been a good place for some to get back on their feet, "it's certainly not for everybody," cautions Erickson. "It's pretty rough: It's hot in the summer; there [are] no shade trees out there. And it's cold in the winter. It's far from services. You have to be able to take the bus, live independently, get along with neighbors." Two-year resident Joe Palinkas concurs. "Services are a major inconvenience," he says. "The closest store is two to three miles away." But Palinkas, who moved to Dignity Village because he was with a girlfriend (most shelters don't admit couples), calls the encampment "a major success in giving a stepping-stone for people to help themselves and better themselves." Dignity Village is a safe place to "get your stuff together," Palinkas boasts. "Everybody looks out for everybody. Everybody's required to do security here. Two hours a week; it's a mandatory thing." In total, residents are required to do 10 hours of work per week, divided among security, cleanup, attending meetings, cooking, or securing donations. And there's a Survivor-like rule which states that if you don't pull your weight, or if you violate the village's no drugs/alcohol/violence policy, you "get kicked off the island," Palinkas says. To Nickelsville organizers, he offers this advice: "Keep it clean and sanitary. That's one of the biggest concerns people bitch about. If it's private land, go for it. Do what you can do until they run you out. If it's city land, I'd say go for that too." Still, Palinkas, who maintains the encampment's Web site (www.dignityvillage.org), admits that even after seven years things at Dignity Village remain unsettled, the ultimate goal of self-sustainability still unsatisfied. In the long term, they'd like to move again, to a place where there are trees—and where they're out from under the city's thumb. "We want to get some property," he says. "Do this correctly." Last month, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development reported a 30 percent drop in chronic homelessness nationwide since 2005, which the Bush administration attributes to the 10-year plans. The news left local advocates scratching their heads, especially because King County saw an increase in its overall homeless population last year. But unlike most plans nationwide, King County's is geared toward all homeless, not just those considered "chronic"—defined by the Feds as someone with a disabling condition, physical or mental, who has been homeless a year or longer, or who has had four or more episodes of homelessness in the past three years. The Downtown Emergency Service Center's Hobson says Seattle would be further along had it focused its plan exclusively on the chronic homeless. He cites Portland, which has seen this population shrink 70 percent since 2005, as an example of a city that's seen positive results. Of Seattle's approach, he says, "It makes it much more difficult, because you're dealing with a much larger population." (The chronic homeless make up about a quarter of the people on the streets today, according to Hobson.) "The theory is, at a time of scarce resources, if you serve people who are chronically homeless first, it frees up resources to serve more people," says Portland's Erickson. "We still have people sleeping outside, but see it making a huge difference for us." Block, King County's 10-Year Plan project director, says its focus was determined after weighing input from local government and from faith-based and private organizations. (People outside the "chronic" label are often families with children, a constituency with a strong and vocal lobby.) "Although chronically homeless people are generally the most costly to the system and the most visible, and the rewards are greater," says Block, "your goal should be that no one is left at the level of instability that homelessness brings." Portland's situation, though they've made strides, is not all rosy. There are still more than 1,000 people on the streets every night. And this spring, dozens of homeless protesters camped outside City Hall for weeks, demanding that the mayor create a green zone within the city limits where camping would be legal. The unrest was the result of years of frustration with Portland's "sit-lie" law, enacted post–Dignity Village, which allows police to ticket people for taking up sidewalk space downtown. (Seattle similarly prohibits prolonged sitting on its downtown sidewalks.) Back in Seattle, Corey's been doing some research on Depression-era Hoovervilles, which were ultimately bulldozed in the name of public health. "But maybe we'll be able to circumvent that with nurses and sanitation," he says, tapping his cane for emphasis. (Seattle's Hooverville, built in SoDo in 1931, actually was destroyed by fire a decade later.) Corey brings up his health concerns at a recent meeting at which the group discusses crude sewer components, like oil drums or used septic tanks that could be found in junkyards, and ponders possibilities, like old boat trailers, for ferrying them to Nickelsville. They also consider, for the first time, a deadline for building the encampment. All along organizers have been saying "by the end of summer," so an item on the agenda wonders: "When does summer end in the Pacific Northwest? Labor Day? First day of school? Other?" After careful thought, they choose September 19 as Nickelsville's D-Day. If they can get an e-mail alert system up and running, the Nickelodeons will get 24 hours' notice before they'll have to find a way to their new home and start building. But there's a lot to be done between now and then, including fundamentals like finding building materials and a place to store them, finding a site, and securing more participants. They've got a couple dozen people now. They'll need a couple hundred to build the encampment. Though Tent City denizens are Nickelsville's primary organizers, Corey doesn't expect the shantytown to draw many residents from them. "They have a cush place to stay," he explains. "They don't care. They're lost in their own problems." He adds that Nickelsville, like the Hoovervilles of the past, will have to be open to everyone, even if that means accommodating some "rough characters." "We're not always talking about civilized people here. We're going to have to come to terms with that at some point. But we're not going to kick people out. This is the end of the road. People who will come to Nickelsville have no other place to go," Corey says, tugging on his beard a little. "You can chase a dog from this yard to that yard, and sooner or later you're going to corner this dog and he's going to bite you," he adds. "We've been cornered. The greenbelt was the last yard. This is it." acurl@seattleweekly.com

 
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