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The Homeless Find Temporary Homes at Seattle’s Nickelsvilles

By Jeffrey Rindskopf

Leigha Shouse’s home is the size of a single cramped bedroom, her twin bed occupying about a third of the indoor space. Her spare clothes rest on an armchair in the other corner. A drawn curtain hanging beside the door gives the impression of an entryway. Shouse is glad to have the private space.

“I’m a modest woman,” she says. “I could live here or I could live on the gravel outside—I’ve already had to.”

Hers is one of five houses at the Ballard Nickelsville, a city-sanctioned, self-managing encampment intended to help ease Seattle’s homelessness problem by providing an interim living situation for people that would otherwise be huddled under bridges for shelter.

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In 2015, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray convened a task force on homelessness that recommended the creation of three such city-sponsored encampments. After Murray and the City Council voted in favor of such a bill, the Ballard Nickelsville was the first to be constructed with the help of numerous donors and volunteers in November of the same year.

It is the smallest in size and population of the Nickelsvilles, housing only 25 residents—or Nickelodeons—compared to about 70 at the Othello Village location that opened in March 2016. The property has no running water and relies solely on solar panels and a propane-powered generator for electricity, of which they have just enough to keep their spacious canvas-tent kitchen lit for dinner on these dark autumn nights. The mini-fridge doesn’t run during the night, but that hardly matters given the current cold temperatures.

As the Nickelsvilles were never meant as a permanent residence, each tiny house village has its own case manager from the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) who works to place Nickelodeons in more permanent housing. Many homeless have trouble adapting to the solitude of apartment life after living on the streets for years, so these tiny houses can provide an important transitional step between the two.

“People may feel more comfortable living amongst each other than separating and moving into apartments where they no longer have the support group they once had,” Shouse explains.

Unlike Shouse, most at the Ballard Nickelsville reside in blue-tarp tents that sit on specially-constructed wooden platforms to help them stay dry. Though not as sheltered as the tiny houses—most of which were donated by outside organizations like the Tulalip Tribe and YouthBuild—the tents nonetheless provide a safe, stationary place where Nickelodeons can leave their belongings without fear of theft or city eviction crews.

“Designated areas like these are a safehouse,” says Patrick Moynahan, another resident of the Ballard Nickelsville. “People who really want to help themselves can come here, think things out, and talk to people that know. A lot of people don’t have that chance.”

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Moynahan previously lived under a bridge on Rainier Ave S, during which time he had to take two buses each day to reach his work at Ballard’s Skillet Diner. He heard about the newly-opened Nickelsville from a coworker, then was lucky enough to stop by just after a space had opened up. He filled out an intake form enumerating the rules and policies residents are expected to follow and moved in almost immediately.

Though the tiny house villages are overseen by the Nickelsville organization in partnership with the city of Seattle, LIHI, and the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), they’re managed primarily by the Nickelodeons themselves, who share security duties, hold weekly meetings and vote for elected positions. This organization makes the Nickelsvilles considerably more affordable than other shelters offered in Seattle.

Moynahan does much of the bookkeeping, while other Nickelodeons conduct donor outreach, build new onsite structures, handle internal disputes and oversee the front security desk, which must be manned by a resident 24 hours of the day. The result is a community whose residents must take responsibility for themselves and their fellow campers or else risk being permanently banned from the site.

Despite the occasional resident dispute, Nickelsville’s biggest challenges sometimes come not from within the community but from just outside of it. When the Ballard encampment was first proposed last year, the neighborhood backlash seemed insurmountable, but it’s quieted down a little more with each passing month.

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One of the legitimate neighborhood complaints received was in regards to the loud generator used to power the emergency phone at the security desk. In response, the Nickelodeons restricted the generator’s hours of use and the elected structure-master built an insulating wooden shelter to contain the noise. Still the tiny house village often shoulders the blame for the homelessness problem it helps to alleviate, as well as many unrelated incidents involving non-Nickelodeons that occur nearby.

“We’re the scapegoat, even though we’re trying to minimize the problem,” Moynahan says. “We’re not trying to draw attention to ourselves, we’re trying to better ourselves.”

Moynahan and his fellow Nickelodeons may soon lose their interim homes if the city decides not to extend their lease on the property for another year. During the current public comment period, the hate mail so prevalent last year has resurfaced while the city considers the future of the Ballard Nickelsville.

While this village hangs in the balance, Nickelsville and its partners are already working on locating sites for four new ones throughout the city. Even with the approval of Murray in developing these additional Nickelsvilles, they must overcome further neighborhood resistance, skyrocketing property values and dozens of administrative hurtles. After that, finding enthusiastic volunteers to donate their money and time to construct dozens of tiny houses from scratch will be the easy part.

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