Community Voices Concern, Support at Othello Encampment Meeting

by Matt Mills McKnight

Last Thursday, South Seattle community members engaged with city officials at the New Holly Gathering Hall to discuss the Othello Village homeless encampment. Othello Village will start admitting tenants on March 8th.

The room was filled to capacity for this second meeting on the subject (a previous meeting took place February 16th at the same location), as opinions ranged from concerned to supportive for an experiment referred to by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray as “uncharted territory.”

Eric Espenhorst asks a questions with community other community members regarding the Othello Village homeless encampment at the New Holly Gathering Hall. Photo Credit: Matt Mills McKnight

Prior to the meetings start resident Pete Mahowld handed attendees information on the dangers of encampments he printed off from a local blog. “I have a two and a half year old son at home, about a block away from where the encampment will be located,” he said, explaining that he’s lived in the neighborhood for ten years and crime had dropped in the area.

“I’m worried about the park (Othello Playground) and potential for problems there because of the encampment. While I support helping people in our city without homes, I don’t know that this is the solution.”

Daphne Schneider, a member of Othello Station Community Action Team (OSCAT) chimed in moments after Mahowld. “There are already people living in cars who are our neighbors,” she said. “We (OSCAT) are pretty much for the encampment,” stopping short of a complete endorsement by the group. “Many of us want the diversity in the Othello corridor to continue, and that includes the homeless.”

With hardly a seat left, City Council President Bruce Harrell kicked off the meeting by introducing a panel of officials, including Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim, Sharon Lee, Executive Director of Low Income Housing Institute, Captain Mike Washburn of the Seattle Police Department’s South Precinct, Diane Sugimura, Director of Planning & Community Development, and Sola Plumacher, Acting Director of the Human Services Department.

Kim told the crowd that organized encampments had been in existence in both the city and state for almost 15 years, saying Washington law long allowed encampments to be located on the private property of religious institutions.

Kids from Hazel Wolf K-8 fill out flyers designated to raise money for their efforts to build a tiny house at Othello Village homeless encampment in the Rainier Valley of Seattle. Photo Credit: Matt Mills McKnight

“What’s new about Othello and two other city-sanctioned encampments is an ordinance the mayor proposed and the city council passed in late 2014, that authorized city-owned property or privately-owned property to allow encampments without having to go through a religious entity to be the broker,” said Kim.

“As a temporary (12-month) lease on the land, the city did not have to go through the process with respect to the community meetings,” Kim expanded on the project. “”We did not do a very good job at the February 16th meeting to explain why an appeal was not allowed–it’s under a city ordinance we are operating.”

As the crowd stirred, Harrell reiterated to them that the day’s meeting wasn’t required by the city or the ordinance.

Many, including the city officials, voiced confusion about when Othello Village’s initial twelve-month period started. Harrell said it was during the occupancy period, but later confirmed it began on February 16th, the date of the first community meeting.

After the date was settled, LIHI’s Lee then spoke about an advisory committee of community members who will be tasked with deciding whether the Othello Village is operating properly. Their opinion would impact having the site’s status renewed as a city-approved encampment.

Deputy Mayor Kim expressed as much: “We’re happy to come back to the community–and through the community advisory committee–for input and advice on [the decision for reneweal].”

Ultimately the possibility of Othello Village being renewed is an executive action that rest with the Mayor’s office.

LIHI will manage the Village’s services, and Lee addressed concerns about access to warm water and other facilities at the encampment, “We have the M.L.K. mini-mart on the property that is attached to the site. We’re looking at putting in two bathrooms with running water, and two showers.”

When the encampment opens, residents will be using portable toilets and hand sanitizer, with some “grey water” for dishes.

Trash disposal at the encampment was addressed in a comment by Sola Plumacher of Human Services, who contended residents at the city’s current camps are invested in their communities. “They are engaged with safety, litter and other activities, it’s important to highlight they will be participating in that here.”

She added that her department will also help provide resources for employment opportunities and other services to eventually transition people out of homelessness.

Despite the generally optimistic tone of the panelists, Captain Mike Washburn of SPD South Precinct explained that calls to law enforcement rose slightly in parts of the city where sanctioned encampments reside. Most of the calls are related to disturbances within the encampments.

“These are very low crime areas right now, some of the lowest in the South Precinct, so we’re going to notice a spike or impact and we’re going to address that immediately,” said Washburn.

Prior to the public comment portion of the meeting, Kim took the opportunity to impart that city-sanctioned camps are a learning experience for everyone.

“[We’re] playing a role that we have not played in the past 14-15 years in our city, region and state. In addition to good will, there’s a role for the city to play, ensuring compliance,” she said.

Community members then filed into the middle of the room, lining up behind a microphone to wait their turn in voicing their opinions.

Eric Espenhorst, who said he lived close to the encampment and volunteered during a recent work party, commenced the community questioning, which lasted nearly 50 minutes.

“There are currently more than 3000 homeless people in Seattle, this is not going to make a dent in the problem. Where is the city’s comprehensive plan to address this?” He asked.

Lee responded with: “We’re working on an upcoming levy for low-cost housing, housing that is truly affordable–we’re talking $300, $400, $500 per month–otherwise if you’re homeless how can you ever pay market rent of $1800 per month? In the short term we have to look at emergency survival measures.”

Harrell interjected to urge interested community members to e-mail his office for the comprehensive plan.

Pete Mahowald, pleaded with the officials for more transparency. “We live here. I’m not trying to be negative; we just want to be notified about what’s going on.”

Another question dealt with the maximum number of people allowed at the encampment, currently set at 100, as well as security for them and the residents who live near Othello Village.

“In regards to security there will be phone numbers posted for the residents trained to work this job in case of an emergency. We will also have additional information posted for neighbors living nearby in case there are any complaints or concerns.” Lee said, adding that she expects there to be fewer than 100 people at the encampment.

Wondering the total budget for this city-sanctioned camp? $170,000 is the answer, according to LIHI.

Paul Carlson, who’s lived in the New Holly neighborhood for 12 years, and previously worked with the City of Seattle, Harborview Medical Center, and United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (UNICH) had some pointed questions.

“What possessed you to do this? Why would the city change its longstanding policies of merely tolerating encampments to actually make it official city policy?” Carlson reminded the panel of a recent story that pointed out his former boss at UNICH’s opposition to the temporary homeless encampment idea.

According to Carlson the City of Seattle spends more money on homelessness proportionally than most other cities in the United States, with the exception of New York City and San Francisco. “Something is fundamentally wrong with our system; a band-aid of putting little 100 person tent cities around will not help.”

His comment was met with applause by some in attendance.

Deputy Mayor Kim jumped in to attempt to address Carlson’s comments.

“This is not an either/or situation for the Mayor…what he, council and the city are trying to do is deal with the realities on the ground, today. Those realities are that sanctioned-tent encampments are a safer option, they are not a solution to homelessness and we couldn’t agree more,” she says, defending the Mayor’s decisions. “This is why we are investing in rapid re-housing and continue to invest in the housing first approach…unfortunately it’s not an either/or situation, we’re doing an and/and approach.”

Pete Mahowld hands out information prior to a meeting at Othello Village homeless encampment at New Holly Community Center in Seattle. Photo Credit: Matt Mills McKnight

Mona Lee, a well-known organizer in the Othello Neighborhood for many years stepped to the microphone. “If we’re going to make this project successful, we’re going to need good neighbors–and we’re all neighbors. We must see these people as neighbors, invite them for potlucks and neighborhood cleanups…these are people just like us.” Lee, who helped found the Othello Neighborhood Association, wanted to be kept well-informed on the state of Othello Village, so she could do something positive for the people there.

Pastor Ed Choi of Rainier Valley Church, located at 3800 S. Othello Street, came from the position of wanting to help the community but expressed some frustration about his and other congregations being left out of the process.

“Homeless is not your problem, or my problem, it’s our problem,” Choi professed. His congregation works locally with Hope’s Place to help mothers and children. “It’s a heart and head issue. And so my frustration to you is why weren’t the pastors and congregations from all over the area invited to build relationships with the homeless?”

The panel agreed that it was important for religious leaders be included in Othello Village with a promise to keep in touch about future plans. As the meeting wrapped up, Sharon Lee of LIHI provided some quick statistics about the city-sanctioned properties in Ballard and InterBay.

“Since October, 36 people that lived in those encampments have obtained LIHI housing, 22 people have obtained employment,” Lee touted to the crowd.

Othello Tiny House Village and Encampment will be hosting a work party throughout the day on Saturday, with plans to start accepting residents on March 8th.

Matt Mills McKnight is a South End based photographer and journalist. He currently resides in Rainier Beach with his family. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @mattmillsphoto.