It was 8 a.m. March 11 when the police came to clear out the residents of 1010 S. Dearborn St., the homeless encampment formerly known as Nickelsville Dearborn.
Officers blocked sidewalks leading to the encampment in all directions as well as one eastbound lane on Dearborn Street as camp dwellers, some barely awake, trudged down the side of the hill with their few belongings. There they would wait behind a cordon of police tape either to load their things into a U-Haul for transport to a different facility or strike off on their own.
By the end of the day, eight residents had elected to move to the Othello Village, Ballard or the Interurban camps. They will be back to help dismantle their former home, a requirement of intake at one of the other Nickelsville sites. By Monday, many of the others had taken temporary shelter at an encampment on privately owned land in Africatown near 24th Avenue South and South Spring Street.
At the corner of 10th and Dearborn, Gary D. and his friendly giant of a service dog, Loki, watched the cleanup process. Loki whimpered as former camp members and supporters, floating on an emotional spectrum between dejected and enraged, met with a gauntlet of reporters.
All residents of the camp were given the option to move to one of three existing sanctioned encampments, but Gary D. had no interest in doing so. He’d rather try his luck at the DESC shelter.
“I don’t want to go to another one with Scott,” Gary D. said.
That reluctance to work with Scott Morrow, whom many see as synonymous with homeless service providers Nickelsville and share/wheel, was the first domino in the chain that led to the sweep of the Dearborn encampment.
Discontent with the Morrow’s management style — which some describe as “dictatorial” — and his enforcement of camp rules led to a vote of no confidence in Morrow and the installation of new leadership at the camp. However, upon learning of Morrow’s ouster, camp sponsors including the Church of the Good Shepherd and Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) announced that they would pull their support of the project.
Without the backing of the property owner, service provider and religious institution that made the encampment possible, it was clear to many that Dearborn could not continue on as it had. Still, Friday’s sweep came as a surprise to residents who maintain that officers with the Seattle Police Department told them on March 10 that it would take place the following Monday, March 14, not the next morning.
Some, like resident Clifton Hawkins, had plans to move out by Sunday to avoid the sweep.
“We’re just people who want to have a safe place, have a job, go to work, live our lives and be sure that when we get back, everything will still be there,” he said.
City officials say that criminal and drug activity had been reported on the site and that the property owner, Coho Real Estate, asked for the encampment to be taken down. Police moved in after two weeks of daily visits explaining to residents the precariousness of their situation, said Scott Lindsay, public safety advisor to the Mayor’s Office.
Although disruptive, the sweep ended a month’s speculation about the future of the camp, which at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 20 turned from a sanctioned encampment with City Hall’s blessing into an illegal squat.
Residents held on despite instructions to vacate in part because they hoped one of those supporters would be able to fill the breach.
Polly Trout, founder of the social services nonprofit Patacara, stepped into the fray in February with the intention of becoming the new sponsor. She set to trying to find a site that would support the Dearborn residents.
By the evening of March 10, prospective sites had been identified, but nothing was concrete, something city officials pointed to on Friday, as the sweep progressed.
“They’ve not applied to run an encampment, there’s no site and there’s no site on city property,” Lindsay said.
Trout didn’t give up. Despite losing her own car the day before, Trout spoke to Real Change March 11 from the passenger’s seat on the way to a U-Haul rental facility before meeting up with the remainder of the Dearborn camp to gather their belongings and start next steps.
Sixteen former Dearborn residents were spread between hotel rooms and activists’ homes until afternoon on March 14 when they moved into the open lot in Africatown. It’s unclear how long they can stay there, and Patacara is actively looking for a more permanent location, Trout said.
Trout hopes to find a long-term site that meets her exacting requirements so that residents have access to services — public and private — to make their stay in the encampment a short, but pleasant, one. Trout envisions a site that is a minimum of 5,000 square feet, at least a mile away from any other encampments and situated on a bus line.
The Patacara camp will offer case management services and prohibit illegal drugs and public intoxication, but allow people to use legal substances, unlike the Nickelsville camps which require its residents to be teetotalers and get involved in organizing activities to secure mandated “participation credits.”
“Our mission is to offer compassionate, respectful services that meet people where they’re at,” Trout said. “We’re making sure everyone at the camp has case management and is getting on the coordinated entry waitlist for housing and connecting them to other services if they need it.”
The approach met with condemnation from proponents of the Nickelsville model. In a letter to the Seattle City Council, Nickelsville cofounder Peggy Hotes called the low-barrier approach unsustainable because “when you’re drunk or high it’s impossible to make rational decisions, including decisions on moderating the intake of substances.”
The laxer restrictions on drug and alcohol use may make it more difficult to find a stable site, however. In a letter to the mayor last week, Rev. Steven Olsen, the pastor at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, which sponsored Nickelsville Dearborn, highlighted the organization’s insistence on a sober environment.
“We work with Nickelsville because it has a proven record of providing a secure drug and violence free community for homeless people who are able and willing to work within its structure and abide by its rules,” Olsen wrote.
The flurry of letters is the most recent volley in a weeks-long war of words fought by both sides using communiqués to the City Council. But behind the acrimony and the cultural differences between the organizations lies the same fundamental goal — bringing homeless people in from the cold.
“My car broke down and I lost food stamps this week,” Trout said. “It’s been a long week. Even with all of that, I have a warm safe place to go home to sleep tonight, and everybody should have that.”