Courtney O’Toole, a Washington native, took the fast track into the housing justice movement. Once she became homeless, she immediately joined the SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort) leadership team and helped develop Georgetown Tiny House Village. She currently serves as the Nickelsville representative for Housing for All Coalition.
Tell me a bit about your background.
I’m from Camas, Washington. I mostly grew up with my mom, my brother and my sister. When I was 23, my mom passed away, right after I graduated from college. A year later I lost my little brother. Between those two deaths, I started doing drugs. I was about to move to Denver for a job with Air Wisconsin. I had a travel degree. I went to a private college and loved it. When my mom got sick, I quit everything. I started doing drugs. But then I got clean and started doing different things. When my mom died, [my sister and I] got really close. I traveled. I spent time in Michigan and many years in California. I went to New York, which was my dream. I lived in Arizona. I’ve been homeless for almost three years. My roommate lost his job, and my sister and I couldn’t afford to pay for everything. In Seattle, it’s hard to find a house with just a little bit of SSI [Supplemental Security Income]. I’ve been on disability. I try to overcome my disabilities.
How did you get involved in Nickelsville and SHARE?
Almost two years ago, I came to Seattle with my former fiancé. We wanted to stay together but shelters don’t allow that. We went to Tent City 6, and SHARE was protesting the city taking funding from indoor shelters. So we protested, and we got a spot in Tent City 6. I was asked to be a leader after being there for two weeks. Nickelsville … I’ve only recently been there. When they were getting ready to open Georgetown, I was asked to make the transition from SHARE to Nickelsville. I wanted to open a camp and see it grow. Since before we opened Georgetown, I’ve done security. When we opened in March, I was elected the first External Affairs Coordinator. The day after Trump got elected, I became a board member of SHARE. I’ve been doing that for almost a year.
I know you live in Georgetown Tiny House Village, tell me what it’s like.
Almost everyone at Georgetown has been swept. There’s a few people left. … There are six of us open to camp. Once you’ve been there for six months, we allow people to have a roommate. That’s how a few people, including my favorite sister, got in. We have a few more men than women. We have about 40 buildings, most are tiny houses. There’s a security office, our management triad and our case management office. Other than that, we have houses and two dorms. It’s weird to come in from working all day, doing Nickelsville business, and there’re new people. I wish I had a break so I could get to know people. I’ve been talking to a few of them. A guy who’s been there a month and I just started getting to know him. Some of these people are pretty awesome.
How are you involved in Housing for All?
I’m the Nickelsville rep, and I was asked to be a coordinator for the lobbying committee. I’m also on the steering committee. So I’m very involved with Housing for All. I love the coalition. I love the relationships people are getting out of it. I’ve gotten a bunch of new great friends. I’m thankful for Housing for All. I see all the great work we’re doing, and I’m proud of us. We’ve done awesome stuff, and now we need to get legislation passed.
What do you wish people knew about sanctioned encampments and Tiny House Villages?
Tiny house villages and sanctioned encampments are necessary and they’re safe. They’re vital for this city because there’s not enough housing. I took a housing assessment, and it’ll be years before I even qualify for housing. The services I am qualified for set you up to fail, like rapid rehousing, where they pay everything fair market value for what, a few months. Then you get evicted. There’s no way I can afford that. But tiny house villages and sanctioned encampments … they help people get jobs, they help people get permanent housing, they’re warm, they’re safe, they keep people dry. They give people a sense of stability and community. I love people in my camp. I have developed friends. I went through a bad breakup, and if it weren’t for my friends, I would probably have had a breakdown. So that’s what we need more of. Community, stability. I couldn’t even talk to people before. I stuttered. And now I’m putting myself out there. These places, these communities are vital.
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