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Nickelsville: What’s the next move for homeless camp?
Nickelsville has been camped on city land — without a permit — for nearly two years. Residents have struggled with flooding, rats and disruptive members. Now a neighboring business has filed a legal claim seeking $1.65 million, saying the homeless camp has hurt its property values.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The South Seattle homeless encampment known as Nickelsville has endured rats and flooding, clashes with disruptive former residents and a lack of running water and electricity.
The precarious living conditions have been worsened, Nickelsville residents say, by the Seattle police’s inability to enforce camp rules because the camp is trespassing on city land.
Now, after almost two years, camp neighbors in Highland Park and Riverview are calling for Mayor Mike McGinn to set a move-out date of June 13, two years and one month after the camp moved in. In calling for the camp to disband, neighbors cited a recent report by the Nickelsville Central Committee that it was “overrun” by “meth dealers and barred, violent former campers.”
And a neighboring business owner has filed a $1.65 million claim against the city, saying the unauthorized encampment has hurt his property value and threatened his ability to insure his land and warehouse.
“I’m upset at the city, first and foremost, because they choose to ignore the homeless situation. They seem to be absolutely fine with it going on forever,” said Greg Jacobsen, owner of Sea-Way Marine, whose warehouse sits on the only privately owned land in a triangle that includes the city property occupied by Nickelsville as well as land owned by the state Department of Transportation.
The claim for damages, a requirement before filing a lawsuit, says the city “knowingly allowed a permanent residential encampment to be established, occupied and expanded” in violation of the area’s industrial zoning and without permits, running water or sewer hookups.
“This unregulated and unsanitary residential development constitutes a fire hazard as well as presents safety, structural, security and health and human safety risks to its residents and [Jacobsen’s] property.”
Jacobsen said police last week removed from his land two people who had been barred from the camp for violent behavior, including one wielding a machete. Sea-Way workers hauled away two trucks full of trash and other items, he said.
City officials split
Jacobsen said he plans to move his business and 26 employees out of the city and to sell his warehouse property to Food Lifeline, which distributes food to low-income people and hopes to purchase the entire eight-acre triangle and build a warehouse and packaging operation. Gina Clark, policy director for Food Lifeline, said both the city and state are working to declare the properties surplus and sell them to the nonprofit, which hopes to begin the permit process late this year.
City leaders are divided over the encampment’s existence. McGinn in 2010 proposed a permanent tent encampment in Sodo that would have bathrooms, showers and support services. But the City Council rejected the proposal, saying the land wasn’t zoned for residential uses and wasn’t close to transit or stores.
Some council members opposed authorizing any tent encampments because, they said, it isn’t an adequate solution to homelessness.
Frustrated, about 100 Nickelsville residents moved from an abandoned firehouse in Lake City in May 2011 to the current site on West Marginal Way Southwest at Highland Park Way Southwest. Unlike his predecessor, Mayor Greg Nickels, for whom the tent encampment was named, McGinn said he would not order the police to evict the campers but would allow them to stay temporarily.
There are still about 100 people living there, and their tenancy has been marred by problems. The camp was badly flooded in heavy rainstorms last November, forcing the evacuation of residents for several days. It’s also been overrun with rats, in part because of poor food storage and overgrown brush on the property, but also its proximity to a city waste-transfer station about a block away, according to inspection reports by Public Health - Seattle & King County.
The city has spent about $19,000 through March providing concrete blocks and plywood to get the tents off the ground and to provide covered trash bins and regular garbage pickup to get the rodents under control.
Campers say they’ve worked hard to clean up the camp and ensure the health of residents. But they say they haven’t gotten the support they need from Seattle police. In the past few weeks, campers barred for drug use or threatening behavior returned to steal food and supplies. About 10 days ago, the camp Central Committee took the extreme step of having the portable toilets — the only bathrooms on site — removed for a day.
A Facebook page called “Nickelsville Works” said, “The reason for this decision was our inability at Nickelsville in preventing the overrun of our community by meth dealers and barred, violent former campers. Progress was made yesterday, but the situation is still teetering on the brink.”
Police say they respond to every 911 call and make arrests if there’s evidence of a crime. McGinn ordered stepped-up patrols in the neighborhood after residents wrote Police Chief John Diaz on March 19 to complain about enforcement.
But Nickelsville residents say they’ve been told by responding officers that the police can’t enforce camp rules and evict problem residents because the entire encampment is on city property illegally.
At a meeting with neighbors last week, Southwest Precinct Commander Capt. Joe Kessler said of Nickelsville, “Whatever rules are in place are not legal rules,” according to a report in the West Seattle Blog.
Residents say that makes it hard to enforce a code of conduct and ensure a safe encampment.
“People here are trying to get their lives turned around, but we need assistance just like any other neighborhood trying to do the right thing,” said Ken Cohea, a Korean War veteran who lost his warehouse job during the recession and has lived at Nickelsville since February.
Councilmember Nick Licata, one of the few council members to support McGinn’s proposal for a semi-permanent encampment, said he is considering legislation outlining steps to locate temporary encampments for up to a year at a time. He cautioned that some homeless advocates oppose his plan because it creates more restrictions than encampment residents and operators feel are necessary, such as setbacks from streets and neighboring property, minimum lot sizes and maximum occupancy.
Still, he said, given the health and safety issues at the current Nickelsville site, the city must do something.
“The current situation is untenable. That’s obvious. They need to move,” he said.
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes
Information in this story, originally published April 3, 2013, was corrected April 4, 2013. A previous version of this story misstated the length of time the Nickelsville encampment has existed.