After months of reviewing potential sites, Mayor Ed Murray has released a list of preferred locations for new homeless encampments, some of which may open as early as August.
Three sites have been identified for 2015 on city-owned property in Ballard, Interbay and the industrial district, which between them would serve about 200 people. Four additional properties were identified as possible future sites near the Ship Canal in Ballard, West Seattle and South Seattle.
In March, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved legislation to allow three tent encampments to easily operate on private and city-owned property, a reversal from rejecting a similar proposal just two years earlier (“Advocates win: City Council votes to allow camps on publicly and privately owned land” RC, April 1).
City officials have repeatedly described tent encampments as a step toward safety and community for the city’s growing number of homeless people but not a permanent or ideal solution. This year’s One Night Count showed nearly 3,800 people living unsheltered in King County, an increase of 21 percent over the year before.
“We are trying to address a significant issue that we have in this city in terms of safe, secure places for homeless people,” said Diane Sugimura, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD). “Ideally, they would not be in tents, they would be in housing. But we just don’t have the housing we need right now, so we feel this is a safe place for people to be staying, rather than under the trees and under the freeway. We are trying to address the issue as best we can.”
The city estimates that start-up costs for the encampments will be $32,000, with $200,000 from the 2015 budget included for lease costs and services. share and Nickelsville, the only two organizations to apply, will operate the encampments, while the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) will provide case management services to residents with support from the city’s Human Services Department.
“The commitment by the City of Seattle to fund these services is a huge step forward, in my opinion,” said Jean Darsie of the Ballard Community Taskforce on Homelessness and Hunger.
The three properties, which are owned by Seattle City Light and are in industrial zones, are 2826 NW Market St. for about 52 residents, 3234 17th Ave. W. for about 70, and South Industrial Way near Sixth Avenue for about 78. Each encampment can operate for a year and can apply to renew its permit for an additional year.
Sharon Lee, executive director of LIHI, said she is especially enthused about the Interbay location, given its proximity to transportation and grocery stores, as well as its size and potential for electricity. Officials said Interbay will likely be the first site prepared for an encampment.
“I am delighted that the mayor put forth these sites,” she said. “I visited all of them, and I like all of them.”
Though several housing and homeless activists are lauding the locations, planners have already received pushback from local community groups. By the morning of July 1, Ballard Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mike Stewart had sent a letter to subscribers warning of the potential for “extremely negative consequences,” noting the proximity to townhomes, residences and community centers.
Sugimura stressed that the proposed sites are the results of months of review and research on the part of DPD, and that ultimately, choices are limited.
“Clearly there will be discussion,” she said. “But we know that there just aren’t a lot of options.” The legislation restricts encampments to vacant land in non-residential areas with a 25-foot setback from any residential zone, more than one mile away from other encampment sites, at least 5,000 square feet in area and no more than a half-mile away from a transit stop.
Sugimura said that the city reviewed 135 individual sites, but the number is misleading. Some of the sites are grouped together in a single space.
Many of the vacant city-owned properties were unusable, whether in environmentally critical areas with topographical challenges and heavy vegetation, unsafe due to surrounding roadways and equipment such as electric rectifiers, occupied by parking and storage or just too small.
“It was getting more and more challenging as we looked at each site more carefully,” Sugimura said. “Those kinds of things all led to a more limited selection.”
DPD ended up with a list of 27 sites after meeting with various departments, narrowed it down to 13 and eliminated five more for various reasons outlined in a memo to the city that states, “In a built-up city such as Seattle, it is not surprising that the city owns few vacant sites that would be suitable for this use.”
Darsie, for her part, said she supports the Ballard location, pointing to the dire need for safe spaces and remembering those who have died while experiencing homelessness in that neighborhood.
“I am hopeful this can be a community-building experience for all of us,” she said.
Lee, of LIHI, said other encampments have operated successfully near residential areas.
“I think people have a lot of unfounded fears,” Lee said. “Many of the residents of Nickelsville lost their jobs or couldn’t pay rent and got evicted, but they really want to get back into housing and don’t want to stay in a tent long term.”
“If you look at Nickelsville’s rules, they are really strict,” she added. “How many neighborhoods will say, ‘No
alcohol?’ People living in Ballard aren’t following rules like that.”
Executive Director Stewart’s letter lamented the lack of community input in the site review process, but Murray’s spokesperson Jason Kelly and other city officials said there will be ample opportunity for feedback moving forward.
The resolution for the locations now goes to the Seattle City Council for approval. Encampment operators will then have to apply for permits — a process that requires community input — and will form a Community Advisory Committee to respond to concerns, discuss encampment operations and work with neighbors.