Cameron Billman strolled through the long, narrow greenbelt running just above Interstate 5 between Yesler Way and Jackson Street.
On a warm, sunny September afternoon, the area was filled with the hum of I-5 to the west and the rumble of construction to the east, where Seattle Housing Authority (sha) is redeveloping the Yesler Terrace neighborhood. Billman passed more than 25 tents and at least as many people milling around in the Washington State Department of Transportation property that has been its own version of a tent city for as long as he can remember.
“People have been camping in this area for years,” Billman said. “This is a known part of Seattle.”
Billman has lived there for six months, since he became homeless, and said the area is similar to the authorized tent encampments that organizations such as the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (share) and Nickelsville have operated. People self-regulate and find a way to cohabitate in tents that pepper the landscape facing Seattle’s downtown and stadiums.
“It’s a community,” he said. “It’s just a really low-income community.”
Some neighbors see it differently. Members of the Yesler Terrace Community Council — a body of residents living in sha’s Yesler Terrace neighborhood — would like to see the area cleaned up. But rather than push people out entirely, they recommended bringing a formal tent encampment to the neighborhood, similar to what Mayor Ed Murray is working to establish in Ballard, Interbay and sodo this year.
While folks in Ballard are hotly debating the placement of a tent encampment on city property near Market Street, others in Seattle are ready to welcome tent encampments into their neighborhood. To many, it’s a way to provide security to those already living outdoors and a way to enhance public safety, overall, in the neighborhood.
In early July, Murray released a list of seven potential city-owned sites that could host tent encampments, including the three that could open in 2015. A site at 2826 NW Market St. that would serve up to 52 residents drew near-immediate pushback from the local community and business interests.
Some in Ballard blame the uproar on the city not collaborating with the community before proposing an encampment there. The outcry grew strong.
Despite Ballad’s bitter opposition, others in the city are eager to bring tent cities into their neighborhoods.
Bill Bradburd, a candidate for Seattle City Council Position 9 and a Central District resident, lives halfway between the current Nickelsville location on South Dearborn Street and its previous location on Jackson Street. When the encampment arrived a few years ago, the response was unsurprising.
“There was the usual hue and cry about drug dealers, prostitution, the usual nonsense,” he said.
Ultimately, the fervor died down when there were few incidents at the encampment.
Some even find that encampments provide a 24-hour layer of safety to the neighborhood. Most have two residents working security shifts any time of day or night, creating two sets of eyes on the neighborhood at any given moment.
The encampment needs those eyes to keep Nickelodeons, as they call themselves, safe.
“Housed people have the one undeniable trait of safety that we don’t have: being inside a thick wooden wall or brick walls with doors that lock,” said Ryan Miller, a resident at Nickelsville.
Nickelodeons are willing to call police if they see anything unsafe and keep a log of everything, right down to the incident number and officers’ badge numbers, Miller said. Because of that, he argued that crime drops after they move in as people become aware that there’s always a witness nearby.
People who have lived near Nickelsville and other tent cities have appreciated that element.
“They have their own very unofficial, unarmed police force that is very handy in the neighborhood,” said Rick Barrett, who lived near Tent City 3 when it was located in the Haller Lake neighborhood in 2014.
Diane Snell, co-president of the Leschi Community Council, lived near Nickelsville when one of its camps had set up on Jackson Street across from Washington Middle School. She appreciated that someone was always watching the perimeter and said she’d welcome an encampment even closer to her home, if she could.
“If we had some vacant land that wasn’t perpendicular, I would be happy to have people housed there safely and to try to help them out,” she said.
The Yesler Terrace Community Council hoped to bring that same element of security to the greenbelt near Yesler Way with a tent encampment.
Kristin O’Donnell, a long-time resident of Yesler Terrace and an affordable-housing advocate, said the Yesler Terrace Community Council floated the idea to Nickelsville earlier this summer.
“We want a place where there is someone in charge and some basic let’s-be-part-of-the-neighborhood-and-not-be-obnoxious rules,” O’Donnell said. “We expect that from our public housing neighbors as well.”
O’Donnell conceded that ultimately this idea has touches of nimbyism — as in “not in my back yard.” By welcoming an encampment, the community is finding a place for people who want to operate within the structure and rules of an encampment and ideally push out those who don’t.
To those who can’t live by an encampment’s rules, “God bless and keep them far from us,” O’Donnell said.
Miller, at Nickelsville, was keen on the idea of establishing an encampment on Yesler Terrace. But it’s not in the works at the moment. It takes a lot to establish a new encampment. When Nickelsville and share applied to operate Murray’s new city-sanctioned encampments, they estimated it would cost $75,000 to $100,000 per year to operate the encampments.
But Miller was familiar with the area and recognized the need for support near Yesler Terrace.
“I knew people who have camped there before,” he said. “That location, even if you only had eight or 10 people, you’d still be doing a lot more to help than putting people off into the streets.”