Grassroots homeless encampment operator Nickelsville and their sponsor, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), are at odds over a new agreement that Nickelsville says would end a tradition of self-management and autonomy in their encampments.
Nickelsville dubs itself a housing community for more than 150 homeless adults, families and pets in Seattle. It formed in 2008, taking its name from then-Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. Its democratic style of self management is similar to that of Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), a controversial organization that recently saw its contract with Seattle’s Human Services Department cut in half.
LIHI and Nickelsville were scheduled to meet on March 8 to sign an agreement, the same day that permits expired for two of the villages in dispute. That meeting never happened, said Josh Castle, director of advocacy and community engagement with LIHI.
Draft memorandums of understanding from LIHI, obtained by Real Change, would give the nonprofit power over who comes to live and who stays in three tiny house villages operated jointly with Nickelsville.
The agreement is necessary to ensure fairness and to meet the requirements for public funds established by the Human Services Department, said Sharon Lee, executive director of LIHI.
“The city is requiring a MOU between Nickelsville and LIHI that will set the tone for our relationship,” Lee said.
Village leadership views the MOU as a power grab that will threaten the safety of the villages.
“The people of SHARE, WHEEL and Nickelsville built this model,” said Michelle Kafel, a former Nickelsville resident who was party to the negotiations, before leaving in protest. “To have someone come and strip it away is going to meet pushback.”
Kafel spent years with Nickelsville, SHARE and WHEEL, three communities built by homeless people that evolved from the same model. She believes in the model but ultimately left to build a tiny house community in Arizona, where there is less interference with the daily operations of the camp.
Nickelsville and LIHI have partnered for three years to establish city-sanctioned tiny house villages in Othello, Georgetown and Northlake.
LIHI coordinated the construction of the tiny houses, provided case management and took on insurance, liability and fiscal responsibility for the sites. Nickelsville’s role was to manage day-to-day operations in those villages using its brand of democratic self-management.
Despite working together for three years, Nickelsville and LIHI found themselves at a crossroads. LIHI met resistance to its attempts to increase case management in the villages, which helps connect people with resources and housing. LIHI also objected to the use of “bars,” a controversial disciplinary process that bans a person from the camp for a period of time.
In one case, a resident was barred from the camp for seven days, allegedly for missing a “participation credit,” Lee said. Participation credits can be earned by engaging in activities, such as speaking out for policies at City Hall.
Nickelsville and LIHI have found areas for compromise in the past. Nickelsville is no longer allowed to bar people at night or on weekends when they might have difficulty finding alternative shelter, for instance, and there is an existing requirement that the villages participate in the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which tracks contacts with homeless services.
Kafel sees the attempt to control who stays and who leaves the villages as an attempt by LIHI to impose direct rule over the communities while continuing to use Nickelsville residents as unpaid labor to manage the camps. She suspects that the new requirements come at the behest of HSD in an attempt to meet performance targets.
“It’s great to be ambitious. Shoot for it, but don’t punish us when we don’t meet it because we are meeting other goals like keeping people safe,” Kafel said.
HSD would not comment on negotiations between LIHI and its subcontractor, said spokesperson Will Lemke.
Nickelsville countered with its own proposal at the end of February that softened language around the new requirements and includes a clause that would allow it to break ties with LIHI and go forward with another qualified encampment operator.
LIHI rejected that language and came back with a second draft that kept the most controversial elements in place.
Despite the protestations of the Nickelsville leadership, Lee doesn’t see LIHI’s proposed MOU as the end of self-management. LIHI runs 10 tiny house villages within city limits. Communities like Camp Second Chance on Myers Way and Tiny Cabins Safe Harbor in Interbay both operate using some version of the self-managed model.
The Tiny Cabins Safe Harbor community used to work with share, the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort, another self-managed community that is distinct from Nickelsville but evolved along similar lines.
Kafel disagrees with LIHI. “If you know anything about self-management, you know what it means to sign this agreement,” she said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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