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)