by Kelsey Hamlin
Walk in to the South End’s Othello Village, and you’ll find tiny homes with charming scarecrows perched in little gardens, children, and an open building with a cardboard plaque labeled “security office.”
Every once in awhile, a man named Matt Hannah sits inside. He can usually be found with his nose buried in a gigantic book, talking to other residents, or writing. But this isn’t his first rodeo. Hannah once lived at Nickelsville’s Camp Dearborn, and instigated Ballard’s homeless encampment.
Hannah’s only been at Othello for a month. Those places, he explained, were smaller, with different rules and dynamics.
“There always is when there’s different people,” he said, adjusting his snapback. “Compared to how I ran Ballard, it’s pretty strict [at Othello Village]. Probably one of the stricter encampments I’ve been in.”
However, Hannah contended the Othello encampment has far more families than any other place he’s lived, which might explain the stringent rules. Othello’s focus on families and kids is the reason he relocated in the first place, since Hannah has a seven-year-old son named Devyn. Regardless, previous encampment residents have also grumbled about the rules.
“I don’t feel it’s particularly fair to just kick someone out when they break one rule,” Hannah said. “It’s kind of dog-eat-dog. They’re nice people, just strict on the kind of dumb stuff.”
It was no easy feat getting to where he’s at. Hannah now has a job, but that wasn’t even a possibility before receiving his driver’s license — something that proved a struggle all on its own because of a loophole.
In order for Washington residents to get their birth certificates, they need either their or their parent’s license; but in order to get their license, they need a birth certificate. Even substitutes, like a social security card, can be out of reach. This has a dramatic effect on homeless people who are often disconnected from family, have none left, or have no way to obtain the necessary documentation. On top of that, lacking such documentation translates into housing barriers and essentially guarantees unemployment.
“It’s hard enough to work when you’re not in housing,” Hannah said.
He also worries that encampments like Othello will soon cease to operate because Seattle decided to mostly abandon temporary and transitional housing. This is due in part to Focus Strategies’ analytical report from last year, listing transitional housing as low-performing. The group was contracted by the city to do performance and statistical research on Seattle’s homeless projects and organizations.
“These types of encampments, transitional housing, is important for people moving on because it gives them a chance to learn skills,” Hannah said. He expressed that even his own security position teaches people responsibility. Shuttering encampments takes away the stepping stones from homelessness to normal life.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “They’re just people learning how to do this kind of stuff. You end up getting burned so many times that you end up getting wary.”
Behind the village’s security shack is a group of white tents serving as a kitchen and play area for kids. Matt’s son Devyn sat playing in the latter, humid but happy. There were books, toys, a little couch, and even a donated TV.
This story is one addition to today’s widescale media coverage, designated as #SeaHomeless, to highlight homelessness.
When The Emerald wrote for #SeaHomeless last year, we wrote a telling story on a homeless single mother, Ronda Althaus, then an Othello Village resident. Althaus has since moved out, and the village has moved in a different direction.
This time last year, there was no electricity or running water. Now, the tiny home village has both. Additionally, there’s nearly twice as many tiny homes, sitting at 28, with a handful of home-like structures made of tarps. Othello currently hosts 56 adults and approximately 15 children.
Residents still sign up for security shifts and must schedule their showers. Seattle police Detective Denise “Cookie” Bouldin still visits weekly of her own accord, to help. So does a pastor. Just two weeks ago, YouthVille provided the encampment with two barbecues and a structure for shade.
Sean Smith, Othello’s outreach coordinator, said “there’s an incredible amount of support for the tent here.”
He, too, is concerned about rapid rehousing — already a low priority relative to the city’s other housing and shelters projects. Smith feels Seattle’s rising rents are simply too much to handle, even at reduced costs, for those previously homeless. Those getting into rapid rehousing, he explained, have to come up with that money after only one to three months. There’s no adjustment period, but a ton of culture shock.
“They’re slating a lot of money into that,” Smith said. In fact, the Focus Strategies report defined success in homeless programs as the number of exits into permanent housing. The report listed the exiting rates of transitional housing as low, though it was at 60 percent for adults, and 73 percent for families.
Regardless, this year’s Point in Time count found 11,643 people homeless in Seattle. Smith feels that although more and more people have become homeless every year, the number of shelter beds has stayed stagnant since the ‘90s. While this isn’t necessarily true — bed counts have increased — the proportion of the homeless population to beds hasn’t kept up. But Focus Strategies found “in general, the bed inventory in Seattle/King County is being well utilized.”
Smith also expressed there being additional help available to homeless families. Focus Strategies supports his assertion, finding families make up 12 percent of the homeless population, but receive 21 percent of homeless financial investments.
Right now, Othello is still waiting for Seattle to approve their renewal proposal, filed in March, to stay at their current site. Even if granted, that renewal will come to an end within a year’s time, and Othello Village will have to relocate. The city only allows encampments to occupy a site for one year, whereupon an encampment can submit a renewal application for one more year. Regardless, Smith was not yet worried, and is still looking for Othello’s next location.
Kelsey Hamlin is a freelance reporter working with various Seattle publications. Currently, she’s nearly finished with her University of Washington undergraduate career with interdisciplinary Honors., majoring in journalism and a minoring in Law, Societies & Justice. Hamlin served as President and VP for the UW’s Society of Professional Journalists over the past two years. Find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin or see more of her work on her website.
Featured image by Alex Garland