South Seattle Residents Weigh in on Othello Homeless Encampment

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.

Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell addresses attendants at Tuesday’s meeting. Photo: Sophie Hayes

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.

Almost 3,000 people are homeless in Seattle, according to the latest one-night count taken on Jan. 29. The three city-sanctioned encampments combined will take in 300 of homeless people.

18 thoughts on “South Seattle Residents Weigh in on Othello Homeless Encampment”

  1. All of the sanctioned homeless camps in Seattle (Ballard, Interbay, Dearborn, 22nd and Union) are run jointly by SHARE and the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI). There are serious issues with the way the camps are run. The camp management does not live at the camp –so much for the claim of self-management – and they have been known to use pressure tactics against residents who complain or challenge the camp authorities for any reason. In this post from my blog, I describe an incident from the Nickelsville Dearborn site where the manager threatened to boot the whole camp after the campers rebelled against him. This was covered in the local press at the time, though not in such detail as I present it here:

    I tried to follow up with the directors of both SHARE and LIHI to verify their account, but they both stonewalled me. Now that both groups are receiving City money, the campers have a legal right to appeal evictions to a neutral authority, but when I press the City to notify campers of their rights and to take charge of the appeals process, they refuse.

    Here’s an example of an exchange between me and Councilmember Mike O’Brien’s staffer:

    My advice to the people of the Othello neighborhood would be to proceed with caution and to demand that the City impose meaningful oversight of the proposed camp. Don’t take SHARE’s promises on faith and then sit back and hope for the best. That has never worked out well for any of the neighborhoods that have hosted the camp so far. It certainly didn’t work out well for mine.

      1. Thanks, Polly.

        The only lasting solution is to detach all the camps from the control of SHARE or any organization affiliated with it, including LIHI, which is SHARE’s creature. That is going to be hard to do, because SHARE and LIHI have powerful connections at City Hall. Councilmember Lisa Herbold is a former associate of Scott Morrow’s, for example, and CM Kshama Sawant receives ongoing political support from Morrow and LIHI’s Sharon Lee. I suspect there are other people at City Hall who owe Morrow favors as well. Between the two of them, SHARE and LIHI get millions of dollars in City funding every year, which says a lot about how powerful they are.

        People who want to make a change should press for an quick, efficient, and independent grievance process and should demand that the City terminate its relationship with SHARE and any of its affiliates. That’s the first step. The next step would be to ask that the City create a special office for overseeing tent camps and tiny house villages. That office should oversee management of the camps in concert with locally elected camp leaders.

      2. The first time the residents of Camp Dearborn did this it was led by a couple addicts…I know them…had to kick one out of my shelter for violence and drugs and a weapon…the other was staff that quit and went back to running the streets…I saw the people at Camp Dearborn up close…again I have run several of their shelters voluntarily the indoor ones are run very tightly…homeless people have addictions and mental health problems…it’s a difficult task…trying to apply sober and healthy daily expectations is folly

    1. Management doesn’t live there…that is a misrepresentation of the situation…the camp votes on camp leadership onsite…they multiple Ec’s onsite at all times…the security desk and entrance are attended all day and night bags are searched…the staff member regulates the camp and may live elsewhere…doesn’t mean no ones in charge???? and all you have to do is call the police and they will tell you over that the camps over the years have been fine…call them…there at every meeting…this notion that the homeless are more prone to crime or violence is silly….yes there can be problems like the sexual assault ..but look around there are 1700 sex offenders living in houses next to you ..there are domestic beatings of wives at home everyday…neighbors shoot each other…drugs are being shot up in the apartment next to you…just because your housed means nothing actually more cops are called to people in houses for horrible crimes…

  2. With strong city support, this tent city / microhousing site promises to be well run. There will be an on-site manager plus social workers to help residents find permanent housing, jobs, etc. We need places like this in every district in the city, like Sally Bagshaw has proposed. Then we need big money from the housing levy and other sources to build the permanent housing that is needed, such as Housing First. Meanwhile I welcome our new neighbors.

  3. Dick, Sally Ignored the fact that a teenage girl was sexually assaulted in the homeless camps, 2 civil rights complaints, 50 letters from homeless about the abuses and missing donations, Things are NOT what they seem.. Bruce Harrell and Lisa Herbold are well aware also.. It is time for the truth to be told and changes be made. UGM is the charity who is helping the homeless.

    1. The city has made changes to the Nickelsville tent cities. Othello, like the other 2 new ones, will have a full time manager, tight security, and social services, in addition to the physical necessities. Many of us expect them to be good neighbors.

      I wasn’t aware that UGM was helping the homeless in a substantial way. Whatever they might be doing is obviously woefully inadequate. In practice a whole variety of measures are needed, and they are needed immediately and on a far larger scale than in the recent past. Think about the 200 tents that were counted last week in the “Jungle” – and that’s the tip of iceberg.

    2. the UGM runs the worst shelter in town…it’s called by the us homeless people as the bug motel….roaches bedbugs..fleas..violence…I stayed there it’s f’ing scary…it’s disgusting and at 5:00 am they dump you in the street cold or wet ….Desc is a mental asylum feces on the wall…screaming allnight….drugs openly sold all over…go there I beg you to volunteer there …you will never comeback..

  4. Dick, I don’t know what your personal Knowledge is about how Nicklesville is run and the history of crimes committed inside the camps . As a volunteer I am aware that SHARE and Nicklesville share an office, phones, mail box, donations back and forth, I know the hunny buckets are taken away for punishment if enough homeless dont protest. I know that the homeless don’t get the donations that are given to SHARE and NV for them.. I know the Head of SHARE’s girlfriend Peggy is on the Paperwork for NV in OlympIa.. I know SHARE kicked homeless out in the middle of Winter with Nothing..

    1. Dick, you should check out what UGM does, before you say that what they do is woefully incopetent. They do great work, they have a school, Seattle Urban Academy, the Battered Women’s Shelter on Othello, plus meal programs, plus many other programs.

      1. The Othello camp will not be safe until two things are done:
        1) SHARE, Scott Morrow, LIHI are removed from control of the camp.
        2) A streamlined and independent grievance process is set up to ensure that campers cannot be bullied by camp management.
        SHARE uses smear campaigns, eviction, and threats of eviction to punish campers who are criticize management or try to exercise truly democratic self-management. Democratic self-governance is a threat to SHARE, so SHARE evicts campers who try to implement it, and these evicted campers have no recourse because SHARE controls the grievance process completely.
        This is well-documented, but see here if you want to see a textbook study of how SHARE enforces its will on campers:

  5. My middle school students Hazel Wolf K-8 E-STEM are raising funds and are excited to provide a tiny house to a PERSON that is homeless. I couldn’t be more proud of them. Othello Village is within walking distance from my home. Welcome HOME.

  6. I have three concerns…

    *Unfit Habitation*
    The spaces you have constructed are not up to code for habitation in the city. However well intentioned, you plan to have families living in spaces that would be illegal for any property owner to build and rent to people. Why do you think as an organization dedicated to affordable housing that it’s ok to lower the bar for habitation and say that it’s acceptable for people to live in Sheds without plumbing? Something is not always better than nothing, if that something sets a precedent that housing like this is acceptable for people without a home. What you have built is just a larger version of the dog house I have in my back yard and that frankly, is appalling. It’s sends a terrible message and I don’t see why the community would not be better off giving our support to organizations that focus on getting people into real housing or at least into large building modified to create dorm style housing instead of diverting community resources to this kind of shameful half measure.

    *Security & the promise top kick problem residents out.*
    Your announcement says that any resident who breaks the rules by using drugs or committing a crime in the encampment will be kicked out. I’m pleased to hear that you will not let these kind of bad elements be a danger to the majority of good people who will reside in the camp. But that also means anyone in your encampment who is a problem will be kick out into our surrounding neighborhood. That means the person you just evicted for being high or selling drugs or being violent is now walking around our neighborhood with nowhere to go. How is that suppose to reassure us?

    Additionally, we’ve been told that there will be “Security” 24/7. Who is the security company? Is the company licensed and Bonded? Is the “Security” just another one of the volunteer jobs at the encampment? I have concerns that if the security is made up of organization volunteers, camp residents, or is otherwise not being done by professional third party security company, that we can expect crimes and hazards to be “swept under the rug” so as not bring unwanted attention to the camp and jeopardize the existence of the encampment. What assurances do we that that the security being used would not hesitate to call law enforcement any and every time crime takes place? I worry that your organizations preference will always be to quietly kick a resident out into the neighborhood around the encampment instead of actually reporting all crimes to keep there from being any official record of what happens there.

    *Neighborhood Appearance*
    Our neighborhood struggles with an image problem. People feel like we don’t care about our neighborhood because of the number of run down and shabby looking properties. The way we let our community look effects how others see us and how we see ourselves. You say that you are sensitive to your impact on the neighborhood, but you have already chosen to paint your tiny houses facing the street not in the traditional home colors, but instead in a loud mismatch of colors seemingly designed to stick out. The colors of the habitations bear more resemblance to a carnival midway than to the colors used by the homes and business around you. You are not even open yet and we can already see that your effort to limit the negative visual impact of the encampment are severely lacking.

    Will you re-paint those structures to better blend in with the neighborhood rather than trying to “Stick out” as you are doing now? What plans do you have to make sure that the frontage of the encampment is kept looking nice of free of excessive signage so that the encampment does not stick out more than any other homes or business in our neighborhood?

    I for one would need to see some changes in the approach of this village to support it in my community

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