LIHI Staff Replaces Nickelsville in Tiny Home Villages

by Carolyn Bick

After allegations of village leaders abusing their positions, three tiny home villages will no longer be affiliated with Nickelsville or its staff.

As of March 27, paid staffers from the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) have replaced the three paid Nickelsville staffers in the three sanctioned homeless encampments. Those encampments are Nickelsville Othello, which sits on LIHI-owned land, and Nickelsville Georgetown and Nickelsville Northlake, both of which sit on city-owned land. LIHI said the encampments will remain community-led, with residents electing community members to serve as unpaid leaders in the camp.

LIHI and Nickelsville have clashed over management of the encampments, particularly rule enforcement and discipline, which can include barring residents from camps, sometimes permanently. LIHI Director Sharon Lee said several LIHI staffers have received letters and heard firsthand accounts of perceived unfairness in the discipline process, as well as allegations of drug abuse, and intentionally keeping LIHI case managers in the dark.

Acting as Nickelsville spokesperson, long-time Nickelsville Othello resident Sean Smith disputed many of these accusations. He said that LIHI staff have not fully investigated the claims, and are simply taking the word of disgruntled current and former residents.

Lee said her organization decided to replace Nickelsville staff members with LIHI staff after talks broke down over each side’s efforts to come up with a new contract for their partnership.

The City of Seattle required LIHI and Nickelsville to work within a contract. LIHI and Nickelsville met March 15 to resolve certain disagreements. Over the last month, the two organizations offered and rejected memorandums of understanding to resolve the issues. Nickelsville voted down a memorandum of understanding LIHI presented, and LIHI subsequently rejected Nickelsville’s counter-memorandum.

Lee said there have been years of unresolved tensions and disagreements between LIHI and Nickelsville staff.

Lee sent Nickelsville a letter with LIHI’s final decision regarding the running of the villages. The letter cites “key areas of difference” that led to the decision, including difficulties around case management, transparency, and staffing support.

“It has been a long-running and continuous pattern, reported repeatedly to us, that residents are discouraged by Nickelsville staff and leadership from engaging with [LIHI] case management,” the letter reads. It also references “a consistent pattern of disrespectful and sometimes harmful behavior towards on-site case management staff,” but did not go into detail about those behaviors.

More than 30 Nickelsville residents and participants signed a letter to Lee and Seattle Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson that states that they came to these camps because Nickelsville ran the operations.

“Please back off. Do not attempt to push us out of Nickelsville,” the letter reads. “You have no right to do so.”

Like many organized tent encampments in Seattle, Nickelsville has rules for residents and consequences for breaking those rules, which can including barring residents from the encampment temporarily or permanently.

Under its contract with the City of Seattle, LIHI is supposed to ensure that the barring of residents is kept to a minimum and is used as a last resort or if there are serious safety risks. LIHI said in a letter that it was concerned that Nickelsville was using weeklong bars for minor infractions and that permanent bars were “unfair, arbitrary, unnecessarily punitive, and potentially discriminatory.”

Lee said that residents have to go through a complicated appeals process that can take weeks to complete to be accepted back into an encampment.

“One guy got permanently barred, because they said he stole a piece of equipment, and it turned out he was using a ladder to paint the side of his tiny house,” Lee said. “It was home improvement, and they said he stole it, and he was barred.”

Nickelsville’s counter-memorandum states that the community has “implemented many methods of progressive discipline and bar leeway, and has significantly cut back on bars,” and that it has modified its barring policies. It says that residents may be barred for minor infractions, if they have a backlog of minor infractions and violations, or if they have been given several opportunities to correct the issue. The memorandum did not list what those new methods are, nor a comparison of the number of bars it has instituted before and after these changes.

Nickelsville’s Scott Morrow, one of the three paid Nickelsville staff members who oversaw village operations, provided the Emerald a written transcript of the March 15 meeting between LIHI and Nickelsville to discuss Nickelsville’s counter-memorandum that LIHI ultimately rejected.

During the meeting, the group discussed how a resident could be barred over their community participation. Nickelsville and other organized tent encampments require residents to participate in the community, which can include work around the camp and community or involvement with Nickelsville activism. Instead of barring residents for failing to meeting their participation credit, residents are placed under “house arrest” in Othello Village, according to the transcript of the March 15 meeting. This means that, outside work, they would not be allowed to leave the village.

Nickelsville proposed in its memorandum that LIHI caseworkers could serve as advocates for residents facing a bar, but with limitations. The memorandum reads that “LIHI does not need to be admitted into the decision-making portion of the meeting,” if the appeal portion and the decision-making portion of the bar decision are separate. Residents may appeal a bar decision.

However, according to the transcript of the March 15 meeting, Lee asserted that LIHI staffers have heard that Nickelsville staff have told residents not to bring their concerns to case managers or LIHI staff at all.

“We have people who are fearful they’ll be barred if they talk to [case managers]. If the village leadership doesn’t like what they are doing they will be barred,” the transcript of Lee’s words reads. “If you don’t work with your Case Manager you won’t get into housing. [Living in the village] will become lifestyle, that’s not the idea, it’s supposed to be temporary.”

Sean Smith from the Othello village has been involved in homelessness advocacy and organizing for almost two decades. He disputed the characterization of the camps, and said LIHI has not fully investigated the complaints from residents alleging the problems at the camp.

He said the drug use allegation was false, and that the accusation came from someone who was “completely whacked out.” He said a resident witnessed a group of people gathered outside who handed money to one person who left, but they were merely handing money to one person who was going to get sodas for the group. An internal investigation of the incident by Nickelsville turned up nothing, he said.

Smith said a lot of people who can’t follow village rules and obligations will lob accusations at Nickelsville. He said some will “spin a story” for case managers and say that they’re afraid of retaliation in order to get into housing faster.

He said that LIHI didn’t spend time investigating these issues and just believe the complaining residents at face value: “They just go with the story — that’s it.”

“What I am saying is that, even when the case managers are inserting themselves, they don’t take the time to vet up the stories,” Smith said. “They could ask some of their clients. I’m sitting here chatting with some of the families they’ve placed in here, and they are shocked at the way LIHI’s reacting.”

LIHI has done some vetting of these accusations. Former Nickelsville village resident and Nickelsville Georgetown staff member Charmaine Min said she witnessed elected leaders abusing drugs “many times,” during the course of her tenure at the village, and that, based on her experience, the camps that were supposed to be clean and sober were “far from it.”

Min said she was the only other paid staffer at Nickelsville Georgetown, besides Morrow himself. Though she emphasized that this was just her and her partner’s experience, she said that during her time there, residents and elected leaders were discouraged from talking about internal village problems with LIHI staff and the City of Seattle. She said most of this came from Morrow himself.

She said that Scott controlled what residents said in conversations with the City of Seattle and LIHI, rehearsing with residents prior to the meeting to plan exactly what residents will say and how.

“Everything is scripted, everything is gone over a bunch of times, prior to giving the performance, I guess you’d say,” Min said. “Scott would sit there and censor everything. If it wasn’t to his liking, it wasn’t brought up. If it painted Nickelsville in a bad light, it was never brought up.”

When asked about the allegation, Morrow characterized it as “ridiculous,” and said that LIHI staff “have been saying this for six months.”

“It’s just pish-posh,” Morrow said. “They’ve never specified anything, and they can’t because it’s false. We want people to work with case managers.”

Min emphasized that not every single leader was like this, and that she couldn’t speak to the way other camps were run.

“Every camp is completely different from another. The way one camp runs, with the specific rules they have in place, the specific procedures they have in place – it doesn’t work for all the camps,” Min said.

Min said village residents are a generally good bunch, and that she is still immensely grateful to have been able to live in the village, in the first place. She used to live under the North Seattle Bridge, she said, a far cry from what the tiny home village offered her.

“[It was able] able to give the opportunity to work full-time, get my life back on track,” she said.

When asked about the future of Nickelsville, and whether it plans to set up another encampment, Morrow declined to comment on the record.


Featured Image by Alex Garland (Emerald File Photo)

4 thoughts on “LIHI Staff Replaces Nickelsville in Tiny Home Villages”

  1. Charmaine Min’s narrative is certainly consistent with my experience, as chair of the Othello Village Community Advisory Committee through last year. I’ve never heard of accusations of drug use at Othello, but our CAC meetings have often felt scripted. Only recently did we become aware of the history of resident complaints to LIHI case managers concerning questionable “bars” and of residents being discouraged from talking to LIHI.

    Unfortunately, my impression is that Scott Morrow has been running Nickelsville as his own little fiefdom, with an attitude of “you’re with me or against me”. Loyalty and denial of problems is demanded of those who are “with him” and they are rewarded. Those who are perceived as “against him” are treated as enemies, to be attacked and vilified, especially LIHI and city staff, which I witnessed firsthand.

    Village residents need good role models, and good oversight of their “self-governance”, to help them successfully reintegrate into mainstream society. But instead of a community modeling healthy “conflict resolution”, they’ve been witness to dysfunctional problem denial and blame.

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    1. I would like to make a few clarifications in response to Dick’s comments:

      – Dick is no longer chair of the OV CAC and has not been part of the discussions with LIHI or one of the CAC observers at the negotiations. His impressions are based on misinformation and some misunderstanding of a complex situation.

      – For those of us who have been following the situation more closely, the challenges and management of the bars are not new realizations. Nickelsville has revised their bar procedures and oversights, more than once. And these revisions have led to fewer and shorter bars, but residents have been very clear in my conversations with them that bars are important accountability and safety tool for the community.

      – The reports from the village are prepared by the residents ahead of time, so it makes sense that they should sound scripted. The reports from the case managers over the past year have not included any concerns about drugs or other troublesome activities. (We also get reports about any 911 calls or other incidents – and the summation is available in our minutes which are online: https://www.seattle.gov/homelessness/city-permitted-villages#othellovillage )

      – I am distressed by the unjust, unfounded character attacks being made here. I understand that some people are uncomfortable with confrontation (I am myself, honestly!), but verbal confrontation is a tactic that is sometimes necessary when important issues are being ignored when conveyed through more conventional channels.

      -The self-management NV has overseen has been very effective in helping residents regain a sense of dignity and autonomy and the role models from others who have some shared lived experience has been invaluable.

      If anyone would like more accurate information, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

      Eliana Scott-Thoennes, current chair of the Othello Village CAC

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      1. I would like to note that Eliana has been on the CAC only a short time compared to my tenure and has not witnessed some of the irrational or insulting behavior that I have. It is this behavior that has finally convinced me that we are dealing with a mental disorder, especially after we heard about complaints that had been hidden from us for so long while LIHI was trying, and failing, to find an effective way of working with Nickelsville.

        Of course, this not surprising in that we live in age of great anxiety and stress. We have a president who glorifies in irrational and antagonistic behavior, with many defenders despite that behavior. I have two close relatives whose behavior has caused needless trouble for others, though seemingly rational from their restricted points of view. Issues of mental health should not be viewed as “character flaws”, as those who must deal with a problematic loved ones know all too well. It’s a difficult reality that many of us must face up to.

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  2. Your article is incorrect LIHI has not overthrown democracy and the attempt of a hostile takeover was not successful . Nickelsville Othello Village belongs to the residents and will remain that way. Many of Sharon Lee’s accusations are false and her attempt at causing disharmony and confusion. has failed. If anything it has strengthen our resolve to prevail in this matter.
    Nickelsville Othello Village
    Head of Security

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