by Sophie Hayes
Seattle’s third city-sanctioned homeless encampment is expected to open later this month in the Othello neighborhood, and if a Tuesday community meeting is any indication, South Seattle residents have mixed feelings about it.
Seattle’s Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) will operate the encampment on two adjacent properties recently purchased at 7544 Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and 7529 Renton Ave. South. The encampment, to be called Othello Village, will house a maximum of 100 people in tents and tiny houses.
Last year the city council approved a law to allow three new homeless encampments on city-owned or private land. With the first two encampments operating since November, Othello Village will be the third location. The encampments are funded by the city, but are run by nonprofits.
Tuesday’s community meeting at the New Holly Gathering Hall in Othello, was mostly calm until it came time for community members to speak. Organized by LIHI to discuss the encampment with South Seattle’s community, attendees were divided between those in support of encampments as a short-term solution, and those who fear the idea of having 100 homeless people residing within the community.
Many of the latter expressed safety concerns, under the impression that homeless encampments lead to an uptick in crime in their neighborhood.
“I don’t believe the answer is to put an encampment in a very, very vulnerable neighborhood, that has been vulnerable for decades,” said Corey Goldstein, a long-time South Seattle resident who said he will no longer be able to bring his daughter to Othello Park because of its proximity to the camp. “What will the public perception be, when people drive down the street and see this?”
After a handful of angry comments and heated questions, Brian Mack offered his support for the camp. He once feared the idea too, but after his church hosted an encampment, his stance changed.
“A lot of people grew in their understanding of homelessness. Homeless people are already living in cars, on the streets, in the Jungle, and people are dying. The homeless encampment is going to help that and keep you more safe,” Mack said, addressing those expressing opposition to the camp.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell stepped up to the podium after numerous fiery comments and admitted he wasn’t prepared to speak. “This is a tough pill to swallow. I get it,” he said.
The councilmember admitted that he takes no pride in bringing an encampment to Othello, but explained that in the midst of Seattle’s homeless emergency there aren’t many alternatives. “We are trying to stop – and I say this with affection and love – our children from being in these situations.”
In a homeless encampment meeting that took place in Ballard late last year, community members there created such an outcry that the city council considered alternative sites to the proposed Market Street location. In the end, the city pushed forward anyway.
The city will fund operating costs for Othello Village, such as tents, fencing around the area, electricity, water, and trash removal. Residents are responsible for day-to-day operations of the camp, according to Sharon Lee, LIHI executive director.
“[Othello Village residents] will provide security around the clock, ensure the place is clean and tidy, elect their own leaders, and make sure there is no loitering or neighborhood disturbances,” Lee wrote in a letter notifying neighbors of the new encampment.
Residents will have access to a kitchen tent, a food pantry, children’s play area, porta-potties and hand washing stations. The site will also have a donation tent, a community tent, and a tent where residents can receive counseling.
Othello Village will be temporary, with plans to use the site as an encampment for a year and an option to extend for another year. In general, homeless encampments are an emergency response to Seattle’s homeless crisis. They’re temporary and can be safer than living in illegal encampments or on the street.
Eventually, LIHI plans to use the space for a food bank and 100 affordable apartments with a commercial area.