It’s hard to overestimate the profound impact that SHARE and Nickelsville have had upon this city.
Nearly 30 years of tent encampments, and the more recent evolution toward tiny-house villages, have legitimatized the homeless self-management model and spawned a robust network of community support.
While these encampments have often been seen as a form of protest against a system that seems to undervalue homeless people’s survival, the campers have always been clear that these are, first and foremost, about building life-sustaining community and keeping people safe.
Homelessness is about more than the loss of a place to live. Homeless people also experience a devastating loss of personal agency within an emergency shelter system that often offers little sense of control over one’s own life.
From SHARE’s first encampments — in response to homeless sweeps inspired by the 1990 Goodwill Games — to the Tent City encampments and Nickelsville and beyond, this organization has provided an essential alternative to camping in isolation and is a focal point for Seattle’s engagement with the issue of unsheltered homelessness.
In 2001, when Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard was fined by Seattle for hosting Tent City on their property, Rev. Rich Lang pushed back hard and forced this city to recognize the right of churches to minister to homeless people on their own terms. With that precedent set, dozens of churches in King County have hosted self-managed tent encampments and cultivated compassion in the process.
While many cities, to one extent or another, have tolerated organized homeless encampments, Seattle has gone the extra mile-and-a-half by hosting self-managed camps on city and private property and funded those encampments as part of the continuum of care. In Seattle, self-managed encampments have gone mainstream.
We have recognized that, in a city where 52 percent of homeless people are unsheltered, the community these sites provide, the neighborhood support they attract and the lives that they save are a necessary part of the solution to homelessness.
This is not simply a case of something being better than nothing. It is a recognition of homeless self-agency, and an opportunity for all of us to directly support homeless people’s survival organizing.
Three decades of organizing by homeless people have brought this about. Frances Fox Piven wrote in “Poor People’s Movements” that, “If there is a genius in organizing, it is the capacity to sense what it is possible for people to do under given conditions, and to then help them do it.”
This is what SHARE has accomplished. It hasn’t been easy. It has often not been perfect. But it has pioneered a model that meets homeless people where they’re at, and provided a foundation for other efforts, like Camp Second Chance, that have also placed self-management and community at the core of their model.
This, to me, is why the recent ugly divorce between the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and SHARE is so incredibly disheartening.
When Seattle approved sanctioned encampments at the commencement of our “homeless state of emergency,” LIHI stepped forward as a partner to manage the funding contract with the city. This exhibited a tolerance for risk that few housing nonprofits can claim.
While LIHI supports democratic management of Camp Second Chance and Interbay Safe Harbor Village, they have been unable to agree on an MOU with Nickelsville at their three partner sites. This places LIHI in an untenable position, and they have assumed management of Othello, Georgetown and Northlake Villages so that those city- and LIHI-owned sites may continue operation with city support.
It was always part of the deal that the SHARE/Nickelsville self-management model would evolve to include case-management, the tracking of outcomes and an increased emphasis upon moving people from shelter to housing.
It hasn’t. The two organizations have been unable to agree on a way forward, and exist at the moment in a state of open warfare. This does no one any good.
As both sides have dug in, the conflict is tearing our community apart. The choice here, coming at a time when the idea of tiny house villages itself is under attack, is to evolve or die. That’s the challenge.
I hope it’s not too late.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read the full April 17 - 23 issue.
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