I was struck by the gardens on my first visit to the Nickelsville Georgetown Tiny House Village. Raised beds of pumpkins, sunflowers and kale accented the brightly colored houses. Residents, who call themselves “Nickelodeans,” smiled and greeted me as we waited for the weekly “camp meeting” to start. They gathered to discuss village operations, vote on internal affairs and elect leadership — all while adhering to Robert’s Rules of Order.
Eleven years ago, Nickelsville organized a Seattle-based, self-managed and self-governed grassroots organization with democratic processes for running tiny house villages for people experiencing homelessness. In contrast to Seattle’s other self-governing homeless encampment organization, SHARE, Nickelsville villages sought to offer relatively stable living situations where the encampment wasn’t required to move every 90 days.
Nickelsville rules of operation prohibit on-site substance use, violence, inappropriate or racist language or weapons and require residents to be active in the life of the villages by participating in democratic decision-making processes (including a weekly meeting) and contributing hours of work for site operation and maintenance. People who violate rules or fail to perform their duties are subject to suspension of residency privileges, called “bars.” An appeals process allows disputed suspensions to be adjudicated through democratic processes conducted by peers (not staff).
I had an opportunity to carry out an evaluation of the rules and accountability structures described above with four other classmates as part of a graduate public course with the Community-Oriented Public Health Practice program at UW. During the study, we interviewed residents, elected leadership and staff, observed democratically run meetings, administered a satisfaction survey and reviewed site bar records. An executive summary of the study was publicly released earlier this month (with permission from Nickelsville).
We found Nickelodeans generally felt the rules of residence were clear and understood the democratic decision-making processes. Residents also valued the opportunity to practice skill-building through chores, and appreciated the stability offered by Nickelsville. Some rules were not rigidly applied for all Nickelodeans because rule exemptions were made to be more equitable to residents with work obligations, disabilities or other barriers — but, when exemptions were viewed as favoritism, it eroded Nickelodeans’ sense of safety and accountability within the community.
The most overwhelming finding, however, was the unrelenting sense of pride, community and empowerment reported by residents. In a focus group, one resident described how radically different Nickelsville is from other shelter models: We’re kind of running the house, not the house running us. We’re so used to rules running us.
Nickelsville contends homelessness is a result of the maldistribution of power and wealth and views its organization as a way to build the political power of homeless people. An alternative to charity models, Nickelsville provides a way to bring agency, dignity and skills to people experiencing homelessness. Though self-governance may not be for everyone, it allows for people experiencing homelessness to have stability and feel ownership over their lives while waiting — often for years — to find permanent housing. This cannot be replicated at traditional shelters.
Our evaluation findings indicate the organization is achieving its goals to use democratic governance processes to build community cohesion and enhance individual capacity, which emboldens Nickelodeans to speak out on the political and economic underpinnings of homelessness. Yet, despite its success (or perhaps because of it), Nickelsville must constantly fight for its survival in a city hostile to people experiencing homelessness, especially those who dare practice self-determination.
Margaret Babayan, MPH, was a student in the University of Washington graduate public health class that conducted an evaluation of Nickelsville’s site rules. At the time of the evaluation, Nickelsville ran four villages; the Georgetown village is now run by the nonprofit charitable organization, Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI).
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