At midnight on Feb. 20, a Nickelsville encampment on South Dearborn Street became an unauthorized encampment. The status change came after the campers voted out Scott Morrow, a long-time encampment and shelter organizer for Nickelsville and the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (share), the organizations responsible for running several encampments around King County, including new encampments sanctioned by the city of Seattle in 2015. On a Facebook page called “Occupy Camp Dearborn,” campers posted an explanation of their decision.
“This vote came after a slew of issues surrounding [Morrow’s] management of the camp including numerous safety concerns, trash pickup, and a steady record of taking coercive measures against camp residents to suit his economic and political needs,” it read.
Although Nickelsville is considered a self-managed encampment, some decisions seem to be off limits, such as who manages and supports the encampment. Residents say they want a new nonprofit to manage the camp. Instead, the organizations hosting the encampment are pulling their support and have asked residents to reinstate Morrow or leave.
The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), Nickelsville, share/wheel and the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd — the organizations responsible for managing and sponsoring the camp — have refused to consider replacing Morrow. Coho Real Estate, the owner of the property on which Camp Dearborn sits, sent a letter — cosigned by LIHI and Good Shepherd — to Mayor Ed Murray’s office Feb. 19, saying that the company was not interested in working with a different church host or nonprofit and asking for the city’s help in evicting any campers who refused to leave.
Morrow and LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee blamed the split on a former employee, David Delgado, who was hired as an organizer under Morrow. Morrow fired Delgado on Jan. 28. Lee alleged that instead of performing his duties as an organizer, Delgado had spent his time “hanging out, smoking and becoming friends with the campers.” Lee also alleged that the current camp leadership of Nickelsville has used and dealt drugs at the encampment, in violation of camp rules.
In a letter, Morrow called the campers’ accusations against him “broad and baseless,” saying that they originated mostly from Delgado, whom he described as “a disgruntled and vengeful former employee.”
The remaining campers, however, described Delgado as a “great social worker” and have voted to take him on as support staff following the split with Nickelsville.
In a Feb. 21 letter to the mayor and the city council, Delgado said that Morrow has neglected the camp for months.
“In Sharon Lee’s letter, she states the state of the camp has deteriorated since Dearborn voted no confidence in Scott Morrow,” Delgado wrote. “Sharon [Lee] says that there has been an explosion of rats, the trash is overflowing, multiple entrances have been created through the gates, and used syringes lying scattered around the camp are common. This information is extremely false. The problems she describes were occurring since last summer, and are symptoms of how badly Dearborn has been neglected by Scott Morrow and LIHI.”
Lee defended Morrow, saying he is a key part of what has made Nickelsville work for years. The organization is essential to the continued success of the camp, she said.
“Without Nickelsville, without an entity that’s going to make sure the code of conduct [at the Dearborn camp] is being followed, there’s going to be a problem,” Lee said. “[Morrow is] overextended, and, yes, he could probably take some classes on how to appear more cooperative, but he’s still who we depend on.”
Morrow has been voted out before under similar circumstances. In previous crises, residents had always opted to reinstate Morrow for fear of jeopardizing the official agreement that allows the camp to remain on the site. Though the camp operates on a self-governance model, residents say that their ability to self-govern is impinged upon by the constant threat of retaliation in the form of barring residents of the camp, eviction or having their services cut off.
“You can’t really talk to [Morrow],” said Cecilia Carey, a former Camp Dearborn resident. “When you bring up safety concerns, you’re ignored. This is not somebody who has any business running this kind of encampment.”
Campers say that Morrow shut off the camp’s sanitation and trash services two days after they voted him out, and instructed donors that the camp was closed and they should stop bringing food and supplies.
The camp’s current leaders said that they have no part in drug-running, and that they use no drugs themselves, aside from smoking pot, which is legal in Washington. The camp’s code of conduct prohibits all drug or alcohol use, though residents said pot smoking has been tolerated in the past.
“We’re a group of people who are tired of being labeled druggies or drug addicts,” said Troy Morgan, external affairs director for the encampment at Dearborn. Celine McCann, another resident, said that this accusation was a recurring theme — and completely without merit.
“There were allegations that the people overthrowing him last time were dealers,” she said. “Just like his allegations that the people before that were dealers. It’s the same argument every time. We can’t all be drug dealers.”
In the hours before the eviction deadline, the campers seemed unfazed. Joined by activists from Seattle Solidarity Network, they held an open house that doubled as an Occupy-style protest, hoping that by inviting people to visit the camp they could dispel claims of misconduct.
Activists and campers huddled around a fire pit, discussing the camp’s uncertain future and fretting about what the midnight deadline might bring. Despite fears of a heavy-handed police response, at around 10 a.m. on Feb. 20, the residents remained undisturbed. Though they are technically trespassing, they seem to be safe for the moment. Whether that will last, however, is anyone’s guess.