by Kelsey Hamlin
Othello Village is situated on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a main stretch in South Seattle, sitting behind a mini mart and across from an expansive residential neighborhood. It’s the very definition of a juxtaposition.
While Ronda Althaus took care of her kids Monday in the encampment, a 14-year-old boy just three blocks away played basketball in his neighborhood park. His name is Abdul Abdul.
At first, he said he didn’t know much about the village, but later disclosed that he and a group of kids had talked to homeless people living there not too long ago, through his church.
“I never knew people go through struggles like that,” he said. “It might be easy for them to live under a bridge and stuff like that, but if that were me, I think I would just quit life right there.”
Abdul doesn’t see the village as an eyesore or as a place of trouble, but instead is thankful that it exists for those who need it.
Another person within that same neighborhood, who was in the middle of taking care of her grandchildren, briefly explained that the view of Othello Village is a “they mind their own business, we mind ours” type of thing.
Bruce Marten, age 15, and a friend of Abdul’s, said that not many people pay attention to the encampment.
Just a block to the right of Othello Village lies Safeway. While Shaquille Rich was busy stocking shelves and making sure people had what they needed, Othello residents were asking to use the community shower.
“It’s still kinda new,” said Rich, who has worked at Safeway for about a year. “News travels fast out here… maybe it’s doing so well, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Rich views the encampment as a stepping stone for its residents to have access to more stabilization, which can then lead to better chances at housing. But that being said, he feels like the mini-housing units are probably similar to being in an apartment for those getting to Othello Village, who were sleeping on the streets before.
“It’s not like they want to be bugged all the time,” Rich said. “I don’t think I’d want to feel like that if I was in an apartment.”
He also noted that theft seems to have decreased in Safeway since the village came in, and he rarely sees a homeless person sleeping outside of his workplace or a nearby Starbucks.
This was all fairly shocking, because I expected to hear from people the typical concerns flouted at Seattle City Hall meetings by homeowners. I expected to hear of great distance between the residents of South Seattle and Othello Village. But I found the opposite. And, in fact, the more I ruminate on it, the less surprised I am. South Seattle is far more caring and community-oriented than, say, the City of Seattle.
Even the village’s own J.R. Ohmer informed me that everyone in the area is “pretty fantastic.” As Othello Village’s external coordinator, he would know.
“Neighbors across the street and around the corner always come by and drop off stuff,” Ohmer said. “From a couple blocks in every direction.”
In fact, right as I went to stop by the encampment to check in with everyone and glean more information, I followed a woman inside who had just stopped by saying she had too much bread on her hands and wanted to give some to the encampment.
While this might all seem picturesque, there are still contentions with the way Othello Village is run. As stated in a previous article, it is run by the very people who live in it, and some rules that allow residency there are very strict. A few limit who, as a homeless person, can qualify to live there.
There is absolutely no tolerance of illegal substances or of weapons. There are shower routines and security schedules that people have to follow. There are mandatory meetings. If any of the zero tolerance rules are broken, or if the other rules are broken too many times, the person is no longer allowed residency.
One newcomer to Othello commented, “There needs to be human compassion for human error.” He argued that the transition into a stable environment can be hard as a homeless person, so mistakes are made. This particular newcomer was asking not so much for less stringent rules, but rather a grace period for adjustment.
Othello Village isn’t perfect, but it seems to be sitting well with the community. It also gets those who can live there into housing far quicker than most other programs around Seattle. Whether it’s the gracious and humble understanding of South Seattle residents or the way Othello Village functions, there is something to note about the relationship between the encampment and the community.
Kelsey Hamlin is an intern with South Seattle Emerald this summer, and has worked with various Seattle publications. Currently, Hamlin is the President of the UW Chapter’s Society of Professional Journalists, and has a second internship with KCTS 9. She finished an internship with The Seattle Times in March as an Olympia legislative reporter, and is a journalism major at the University of Washington, planning to double-major in Law, Societies & Justice (currently her minor). See her other work here, or find her on twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin.
Featured image by Alex Garland