Nickelsville and LIHI Standoff Reaches Three Months Amid Calls for Mediation

by Aaron Burkhalter and Carolyn Bick

Nickelsville’s Scott Morrow has spent his days in the kitchen tent of the tiny house village on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Othello Street. At night, he sleeps on a table in a nearby canopy tent known as “Fisher-Price Suite,” where residents store toys for children living there.

He has been there in an ongoing standoff between Nickelsville and the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) since April 8, when LIHI moved to replace Nickelsville staff with its own at Othello Village and two other encampments. Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD) funded villages in Othello, Georgetown and Northlake that Nickelsville and LIHI jointly managed.

The split followed a year of failed negotiations between the Nickelsville, LIHI, and HSD over a memorandum of understanding that would dictate how the camp operates, particularly around issues of discipline and the organization’s cooperation with case managers. Following what LIHI Executive Director Sharon Lee described as unfair disciplinary processes, her organization moved staff into the encampments and ended the relationship with Nickelsville staff.

At Othello and Northlake, Nickelsville and supporting residents are still in conflict with LIHI. The tiny house village in Georgetown voted to accept LIHI management.

Nickelsville and some residents call LIHI’s presence at Othello “the occupation.” Nickelsville is intended to be self-managed and democratic, and Othello residents in March voted to keep Nickelsville staff members. With that support from residents, Morrow has remained, even as LIHI staff manage day-to-day operations at the camp.

“I haven’t left since the occupation began because, if I leave, they’re not going to let me back in,” Morrow said.

LIHI and Nickelsville, with participation from residents, were unable to come to agreement over management of the three tiny house villages over the last year. Among other things, the parties disagreed over disciplinary processes, including rules about when and how to bar residents for violating community rules, among other issues. LIHI additionally said that Nickelsville was unwilling to work with case managers to get people transitioned out of the villages and into housing.

Many Othello residents who had participated in community work — including managing the food storage, taking security shifts, and receiving and organizing donations — have gone on strike until the situation is resolved.

Residents, Nickelsville staff, and community members have called for outside mediation to resolve the conflict between Nickelsville, LIHI, and the HSD. Tammy Morales, a candidate for the Seattle City Council’s District 2 seat, also called for mediation in a public letter in May.

Those hoping for mediation gained support June 24 from some Seattle City Councilmembers eager to end the conflict. During a meeting of the Select Committee on Homelessness and Housing Affordability, councilmembers agreed that mediation was necessary, but did not have a clear path forward to make it happen.

Residents have been waiting in limbo, while LIHI staff operate the day-to-day operations of the encampment and Morrow holds fast at the location.

Despite the heat of a hot day in early May, Faith Ivy is clad in a sweater and leggings. Ivy, her fiancee, and their son have lived in the camp since October of 2018 and have witnessed the tense transition in camp leadership. Ivy is hesitant to talk about the internal workings of the camp, especially the meetings, which she said have become increasingly hostile between the two sides. It’s gotten so bad that residents don’t want to come to community meetings, she said. But they do, just so they can stay in the loop.

“I just want the place safe for the kids. I want everybody to get along,” she said. “It seems like trust is broken on both sides. From what I’ve found out, it’s still the same, but different. Nobody’s working together. And it breaks my heart. Every time I go to a meeting, I end up crying — like, just because I’m like, ‘Why can’t you get along? Why can’t you get along?’ I feel like we’re in the middle.”

Ivy doesn’t feel thrown under the bus by either side, but she said that the atmosphere makes the camp a less pleasant place to live, and she just wants Nickelsville and LIHI to sort out their differences for the sake of the children who live in the camp. As long as the kids are safe, she said, she doesn’t care who runs the camp.

“I loved Nickelsville Othello the way it was,” she said “But having a few great people from the other side do things that are great — that’s awesome! Because that’s not a negative thing. That helps everybody. So, I don’t see it as sides. In my mind, I just keep hoping that everybody just becomes one.”

Ivy’s fellow resident, who asked to be called “A” in order to protect her and her family, said she and her family moved into the camp in January 2019, close to when Nickelsville and LIHI split. “A” said she tries to stay in her house and “ignore everything,” because it’s stressful, and she’s got more important things to worry about, like her two small children.

She echoes Ivy’s portrayal of the camp’s meetings and the atmosphere of the camp, but she thinks the meetings are going fairly well, though she doesn’t see any improvements between the two sides.

“I listen,” she said, “but when they argue, I’m stepping back.”

Still, she said she felt more independent before LIHI came in. She said she doesn’t know how this makes her feel, but said it’s a little overwhelming.

“We were doing everything by ourselves, and the kids were outside,” A said. “I hope it gets better. … I want to stay here. … I feel safe here. We all help each other. We’re, like, all family. Whenever I need diapers, I ask people around, the ones that have kids, little kids.”

As for LIHI’s presence, “A” said the LIHI staff don’t empty the toilets as often as Nickelsville did, which frustrates her.

Residents and organizers with Nickelsville and LIHI have pointed fingers at each other, each claiming mistreatment of residents. The conflict is tangled in accusations of mismanagement, aggressive behavior, and above all conflicting accounts of various disciplinary actions taken against residents.

Nickelsville supporters have said that LIHI staffers in Othello have bullied residents, that Lee has not visited the camp, and that her organization has not met the needs of the residents. Additionally they say that LIHI case managers tasked with supporting residents to transition into housing have interfered with internal camp management. They said that LIHI is taking disciplinary actions out of context to villainize the organization.

A number of community members through Community Action Councils (CACs) have supported Nickelsville. CACs include community members and support each of the Nickelsville locations around Seattle. CAC members from five different Nickelsville encampments drafted a letter to the Seattle City Council supporting Nickelsville and calling for mediation between the organizations. The letter also called for an audit of HSD, LIHI, and Nickelsville.

“[W]e continue to call on you to direct [the HSD] and LIHI to come to the table with Nickelsville for professionally-mediated negotiations, which will provide the best hope for rebuilding trust, repairing relationships and finding a just resolution to end the current unnecessary standoff,” the letter said.

Lee at LIHI accused Nickelsville of unfair and arbitrary disciplinary action that lead to bans from the encampment, pushing vulnerable people out on the street. She noted that people have been barred from the encampment for seven days for missing “participation credits,” which can include work around the camp or involvement with Nickelsville organizing meetings. She said some people were disciplined for missing participation credits because they were on the clock at their jobs elsewhere.

Lee also said that some have been throwing away food to disrupt LIHI’s work on the site and that Morrow has yelled at people during community meetings. She said the groups already spent a year trying to find common ground as they negotiated the memorandum of understanding that would outline the relationship between the organizations and establish disciplinary processes. Lee said the differences could not be reconciled and she did not think that mediation was possible.

“LIHI is past that point,” Lee said.

Sean Smith, a longtime resident and organizer with Nickelsville, and Bruce Gogel, another resident and leader, denied the accusations and said that the group has experience managing encampments and tiny house villages, evolving and finetuning its disciplinary processes over time. They said that LIHI’s description of unfair bars were selective and lacked the context that led up to the bar. They said that Nickelsville has documentation to support each bar.

“I would love to sit down with [Lee]. I could share every bar I’ve seen and challenge her to show me one that wasn’t fair and just,” Gogel said.

Smith explained that Nickelsville is careful about barring people from the village, and that bars are based on repeated and consistent violation of single rules, meaning that someone can be barred for consistent avoidance of participation credits, but not if they violate several different rules once.

“A bar is the last thing any of us want to do in this community,” Smith said, adding that consistent rule-breaking among one resident burdens the rest of the community.

Smith said he and others are willing to compromise on camp management, but that they want Nickelsville to manage the encampments without interference from LIHI case managers.

“This community has bent over backwards to work with folks,” Smith said. “We’re not closed to making changes as long as it doesn’t affect the well-being of the community.”

Residents have appeared before the Seattle City Council’s Select Committee on Homelessness and Housing Affordability each week to ask councilmembers to back a plan for mediation. On June 24, councilmembers supported finding a third party to work with the groups.

“LIHI and Nickelsville have all made tremendous contributions, and rather than lose all those contributions, we urge mediation between the two parties,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant. “I feel that’s the best way forward.”

Sawant suggested that retired Councilmember Nick Licata could serve as a mediator. However the councilmembers noted that Nickelsville and LIHI would each need to agree to participate and coordinate with HSD.

Still, councilmembers were eager to move forward.

“It seems to me that we need to act with a sense of urgency on this,” said Councilmember Bruce Harrell.

Smith is waiting to see that urgency in action.

“It’s not moving fast enough,” Smith said. “Things are deteriorating on the ground here pretty quickly.”

Lee said that the divide is more than just a conflict over the rules and operations of these tiny house villages; LIHI and Nickelsville have drifted too far apart on the whole.

“Our goals and missions are too different,” Lee said.

Featured Image by Alex Garland (Emerald File Photo)

2 thoughts on “Nickelsville and LIHI Standoff Reaches Three Months Amid Calls for Mediation”

  1. Thank you for this fair portrayal of the sorry situation at Nickelsville sites. Nearly 11 years ago, Nickelsville organized the first democratically-run encampment in the city that sought to remain in one place (SHARE, a sister organization–also democratically run—has operated the Tent Cities that rotate sites every 90 days since the 1990s).

    I love both SHARE and Nickelsville for their understanding that homelessness is a result of the maldistribution of power and wealth. We can’t end homelessness without building the political power of homeless people; organizing their own communities, with their own rules (and ways to enforce those rules) is how to build political power.

    Charitable models have their place–LIHI, Union Gospel Mission, Mary’s Place, etc–but they don’t build skills, political power, or personal agency. They simply provide a port in the storm, without any regard for ending the political and economic conditions that create homelessness.

    The problem here is that the City’s Human Services Department has chosen a side (LIHI), seeking to eliminate Nickelsville. In some ways this is understandable, as supporting an organization that builds the political power of homeless people runs contrary to the interests of the bureaucracy.

    For example, Nickelsville was a vocal supporter of the Amazon Head Tax, which would have generated significant resources to build public housing. The Mayor opposed that tax. So why would her agency support an organization that opposed her policy? I get it.

    But any rational observer has to note the importance of self-governance and self-determination among people who have been thrown to the streets and underpasses of our city. Nickelsville provides a way to bring people agency, dignity, and skills. Charity can never do that. LIHI’s proposed operational plan is NOT self-governance, although it has a few trappings of it, in an attempt to masquerade as such.

    I’m a public health faculty member at the UW, and my students have worked with SHARE and Nickelsville for many years on various research, evaluation and other projects. This year, my students interviewed all the Nickelsville residents to assess their level of satisfaction and affinity with Nickelsville. The results were very positive.

    I have high hopes for a mediation process, if the parties come in good faith. LIHI and Nickelsville used to be allies and partners in the struggle.

    I worry that LIHI views its “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” as continuing on with its cozy relationship with HSD, edging Nickelsville self-governance off the table. A skilled negotiator can do wonders, though. So I vote for optimism, and urge the parties to negotiate with a sincere interest in finding common ground.