Nickelsville: a self-governed encampment



Councilmembers Nick Licata, Tom Rasmussen, Sally Clark and I visited the encampment on Marginal Way on Thursday afternoon, July 7th.  The Nickelodeons, as they call themselves, were waiting for us and introduced us to their camp rules, their code of conduct, and most importantly, to themselves.

I have written about encampments previously (see the Dignity Village post from March) and want to provide some additional thoughts about the people who live in Nickelsville and how we can support them.  Their goals are simple ones.  They seek security, safety, and dignity.

They are determined people who care for themselves and their neighborhood.

Approximately 80 people are currently living in the Nickelsville encampment.  They care about each other’s well being and care about their neighbors.  We met Michael, who is in charge of security and organizes neighborhood cleanups weekly.  His wife Rita accepts and organizes donations for distribution to camp members. Yon is responsible for growing the garden and cultivating vegetables.  Revelation, who led our tour, is one of the arbitrators who helps deal with conflicts that might arise among campers.   There’s a bookkeeper, a pet monitor, and a safety officer among other jobs.  Each person is expected to abide by the rules and to help keep the camp clean.

Most Nickelodeons are looking for permanent, affordable housing and work.

At a round table discussion that afternoon, we spoke with twenty of the residents living there.  David told us that he (and most everyone else in the encampment) is on waiting lists for affordable housing.  Some are on the waiting list for Plymouth Housing, LIHI, and Seattle Housing Authority.  Everyone I spoke to said they will move on when they have saved money for an apartment and security deposit or get into subsidized housing.   Some have jobs; others are looking.

They give back to their community and promote safety within and without.

Everyone who lives in the encampment is expected to abide by the self governance philosophy, and they have weekly meetings and designate cleanup crews to go around their neighborhood picking up trash along the way.  They have two people on security duty 24/7, requiring everyone who comes to the site to sign in and show identification.  They also keep security outside and around the camp every night to keep the area safe and secure.  They screen for criminal history and predators.

They comply with their own strict rules of conduct.

Encampment rules are strictly enforced.  Every camper signs and dates a statement of agreement upon being accepted into the camp.  Included in the rules are zero tolerance codes.  No drugs or alcohol, no violent behavior, no smoking, no open flames in tents, no weapons, no sexual predators, and no theft is tolerated.  A violation of these rules results in expulsion from the encampment.

They have an impressive self governance program.

Every Sunday the group has a mandatory meeting to deal with issues and concerns that come up.  They choose a leader, elect officers, and treat each other respectfully.  Should a dispute arise, the camp elects arbitrators who will hear an appeal and make decisions on behalf of the group.

They take comfort in being together.

Many of the campers spoke to us about their reasons for being homeless.  They all acknowledged that being homeless at this point was a temporary situation in their life.  Some had lost their job.  Some were looking for multiple part time jobs.  Some were new to homelessness; others have lived on the streets for awhile.  They told us the best part about being together at Nickelsville was that they felt safe, their property inside their tents was secure, and they treated each other with respect.  Previous campers have pooled resources to get an apartment of their own.

They can care for their animals in the encampment.

We all know how important pets are to our well being.  Most shelters will not allow people to bring their animals inside.  In Nickelsville, cats, dogs, and even goats are welcomed members within the property.  The pets I saw are loved and under control.  One camper is elected to assure all pet rules are followed.  Written rules are given to all pet owners and they are clear and enforced: all animals must be on leashes when outside a tent, the owner must supervise the pets at all times, owners are responsible for clean up, noise must be kept to a minimum and all animals must be well treated.   By the looks of the animals on site, they were beloved members of the community.

Donations are welcome.

Rita is in charge of receiving and organizing donations.  Donations of food and clothing are very appreciated and shared.  I asked what they could use.  Laundry detergent, soap, hygiene products.  Clothes for “queen size women and skinny guys,” says Rita, “are always welcome”.  Blankets, tarps, tools are also needed.  If you have items to donate, please take them to the site located between Marginal Way and Highland Park Way. If you prefer, you can leave them with me; I’ll take them for you.

We are all in this together.

My impression of this encampment is that it is surprisingly well organized and provides a place where people are safe, secure, and feel respected.  People come to the site and move on as they are able; only two of the people who are in the encampment now have been there since Nickelsville began. The rest cycle through to other housing options.

For sure, I want our city to invest the preponderance of our housing resources in permanent and affordable housing.  We are a generous city that has built thousands of units of affordable housing and there remains a critical  need to provide space for people who cannot get into housing and shelters.  In Seattle there are 2500 shelter beds and by the last One Night Count, thousands more live without housing in King County.

I support these people who are doing the best they can to contribute to a civil society.  By the way, I also support a new name for the camp!

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