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Tuesday, August 21, 2012 - Page updated at 09:30 a.m. Information in this article, originally published Aug. 19, 2012, was corrected Aug. 20, 2012. A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the neighborhood of Riverside. The neighborhood's name is Riverview.

As tent city struggles, Seattle has no easy answers on homeless

By Lynn Thompson
Seattle Times staff reporter
A year ago last spring, when members of the roving tent encampment Nickelsville moved to vacant city land on West Marginal Way, Mayor Mike McGinn said he would allow them to stay for the time being.

At the same time, he urged the City Council to consider authorizing a permanent tent encampment somewhere in the city.

Fifteen months later, Nickelsville hasn't moved.

Residents have no electricity, running water or plumbing. Helped by volunteers, they haul hundreds of gallons of water a day for drinking and dishes, and say the $1,600 a month they spend on portable toilets would be better spent on food.

And while they struggle to meet basic needs, the encampment has worn out its welcome with the adjacent neighborhoods of Highland Park and Riverview.

In June, McGinn proposed legislation that would allow temporary tent encampments almost anywhere in the city except in residential neighborhoods, and would let them stay for up to six months instead of the current 90 days.

The City Council hasn't considered the legislation — in part because the very campers it is supposed to help don't like it.

Almost everyone agrees the conditions at Nickelsville are untenable, but city leaders are at odds over what to do about it. The impasse highlights the lack of consensus over whether tent encampments should play a role in providing emergency shelter for the homeless and, if so, how to regulate them.

Residents of Nickelsville and another large homeless encampment, Tent City 3, object to the proposal because they say its requirements for camp management and setbacks from streets and neighboring properties are more restrictive than the rules that have governed tent encampments over the past decade.

Those terms were part of a court-ordered consent decree that expired in April.

"None of the homeless organizations support it because it's worse than nothing," said Tim Harris, founding director of Real Change newspaper.

City Council members are also divided over strategies to end homelessness, with some wanting to provide for immediate survival needs such as tent encampments while others see tents as a step backward in the goal to move more people into permanent housing.

"To get people out of homelessness, they need a roof over their heads," said Councilmember Richard Conlin. "Tents aren't a safe or healthy long-term solution. It's not something we should be facilitating or presenting as if it were a solution."

That view is echoed at the federal level, where administrators from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness advised Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin in March that the costs of trying to support people in encampments "would be more strategically spent on housing."

But with unemployment still high, local shelters full and long waits for subsidized housing, other officials and homeless advocates say they need more options for emergency shelter, not fewer. Most shelters accept only women and children or single men, not intact families and no pets.

"We have people in this city sleeping outside. That's reality. Let's create as many options as we can," said Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith, who has led the mayor's efforts to establish a permanent tent encampment and to create new guidelines for roving encampments.

Other shelter providers agree. At Mary's Place, a day center for homeless women and children in downtown Seattle, five to seven new homeless families arrive every week, said Marty Hartman, director of the center. She said that since January, 251 homeless children have spent time at the shelter, which is not open at night.

"These families are sleeping in their cars, in tents, on city buses and hospital emergency rooms. Of course they need permanent homes. But equally important, they need a place to be safe, warm and together tonight," Hartman said.

Progress, frustration

Bill Block, project director of the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, said the dispute over tent encampments shouldn't distract from the widespread agreement among regional leaders about funding other strategies to end homelessness.

He notes that public and private funding has built 5,000 units of permanent housing for people leaving homelessness over the past seven years. By comparison, he said, Portland's 10-year goal is 2,000 units.

Block said he's hopeful that the region's new emphasis on what's called rapid rehousing — trying to meet families' immediate needs, which may be as simple as paying for a car repair or a utility bill, rather than providing months of emergency shelter and transitional housing — will free up shelter space for those living on the streets.

In 2012, Seattle will spend about $35 million for homeless services, including about $2 million for transitional housing and emergency shelter, according to the city's Human Services Department. The City Council last year approved an additional $435,000 for homeless families with children.

Councilmember Nick Licata, who has advocated for more emergency shelter, said the council's goal was to have no family in Seattle unsheltered by the end of 2012.

But at a recent City Council committee meeting, held at Mary's Place, council members expressed frustration that the additional money was going primarily to existing programs and not to families' immediate survival needs.

"How can we make more options available with the resources we have? I'm getting impatient," said Councilmember Sally Bagshaw.

In 2010, McGinn proposed that a permanent tent encampment for 150 be built on city-owned land in Sodo. But the City Council rejected the plan, saying the site needed environmental cleanup, that it was too far from buses, stores and social-service agencies, and that the cost to provide services there — about $500,000 a year — made it too expensive for the number of people who would be served.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, Nickelsville residents moved to the vacant city land on West Marginal Way.

The property, on industrial land at the foot of the West Duwamish Greenbelt, is even farther from stores and services than the Sodo site, but residents say the location would be fine — if they had such basics as water and electricity.

"We have a good community here. We've proven ourselves," said Peggy Hotes, a community volunteer who sleeps at Nickelsville several times a week.

"I feel safe here"

For Diane Fillmore, a homeless mother of two teenage boys, Nickelsville offered a safe, accepting community. Her sons weren't allowed in family shelters, nor were the family's three cats.

"As a mother, I feel safe here until I can find a job and an apartment," she said.

But the life isn't ideal. Her older son dropped out of high school last year. Her younger son, who does his homework by flashlight in the winter, said he has trouble concentrating on school.

Up the hill from West Marginal Way, the Highland Park neighborhood was unaware that the encampment was there to stay.

Carolyn Stauffer, who with her husband, Billy, co-chairs the Highland Park Action Committee, said neighbors were initially sympathetic to the tent encampment because of the many people in the region left homeless by unemployment, foreclosure and medical crises.

But after five months, she said, neighbors began to complain about aggressive transients riding the buses and people kicked out of Nickelsville for violating the rules who were "camping in the woods where we used to take our kids on nature walks."

"We have nothing but respect for the people at Nickelsville," she said. "But it's been 15 months now and there are people everywhere in the green belt, trash everywhere, pit bulls. We'd like other neighborhoods to take their turn."

Councilmember Licata met with the Highland Park neighbors, residents from Nickelsville and other homeless advocates last week to discuss the mayor's proposed encampment legislation. Nickelsville residents said they were willing to relocate — if the city provides a semi-permanent site.

At the same time, Licata wants to redouble the city's efforts to give homeless families priority for emergency shelter and permanent housing.

"How do we ensure that Seattle is not a city with children sleeping outdoors at night?" he asked.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or On Twitter @lthompsontimes.

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