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Originally published Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 10:53 AM

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Guest: Find a permanent site to replace Nickelsville for homeless people

Homeless people need a place to pitch a tent, not more case managers, writes guest columnist Derek Low.

Special to The Times

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I’VE worked directly with homeless people for more than a dozen years. In that time, I’ve learned only two things about Seattle’s homeless population. First, they have access to at least one case manager and many have more than one. Second, they don’t have a home.

So why is the City of Seattle spending money on case management instead of homes for the people displaced by Nickelsville’s closure in August?

This summer, the Seattle City Council found an extra $500,000 stuffed under our proverbial mattress. These funds were allocated to help the residents of Nickelsville find housing, as the council also voted to displace the camp. Local churches and housing-services groups then helped residents of Nickelsville who were moved to three different sites.

No new housing was built, no new shelters were made available and no new space was opened for Nickelsville-style tent cities. Instead, Nickelsville residents get more case managers.

The city already funds a substantial case-management and multi-service center for homeless people, including those at Nickelsville. The Downtown Emergency Service Center’s Connections Program, exclusively funded by the city, offers a hygiene center, treatment referrals, training and case management for homeless people.

Did Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council forget their previous plan to secure a city-sanctioned site for Nickelsville?

I am not saying case managers and supportive services are not needed. I want to honor the difficult and outstanding work performed by poorly compensated social-service providers. Without them, we would be worse off.

Just two years ago there was a moment to provide a permanent home for this version of a tent city. The city had discussed turning the Sunny Jim site in Sodo into an encampment site for $120,000.

The case-management services sign up people on housing waitlists that are already too long. Case managers have to tell their new clients that transitional housing waits are just as long or use a lottery-style selection process.

New case managers must also explain there are no available shelters that will accept males over 10 years of age. Further, married couples without children will likely have to stay in separate shelters across town from each other, each with different curfew restrictions.

One could argue it was not the cost that derailed the option of a permanent site. Rather, it was that a minimum standard of amenities could not be provided, such as enough sinks and toilets, and a sound, clean structure.

Yet two years later, Nickelsville was still using a temporary and illegal camp site. Amenities included: pallets to stay out of the mud and outhouses. But letting Nickelsville camp legally on a designated piece of old blacktop is somehow worse?

We need to provide a permanent site for Nickelsville. It would be great to provide a site with plush amenities. At the very least we can provide some pavement (flush toilets would be a bonus). So before we all pat ourselves on the back for spending $500,000 on new services, let us provide the one service Nickelsville is actually asking for: a well-regulated, permanent and legal site.

Tell the City Council that you support a city-sanctioned site for Nickelsville.

To end homelessness, people need homes; a home for their camp is a start. Let’s give Nickelsville a home. We aren’t building affordable housing fast enough and the waitlists are very long. While waiting for permanent housing, the least our great city can do is provide a legal and safe place to pitch a tent.

Derek Low is studying for master’s degrees in social work and public health at the University of Washington. He has worked in homeless services in Seattle since 2000.

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