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Originally published June 25, 2013 at 9:12 PM | Page modified June 26, 2013 at 6:27 AM

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Nickelsville residents balk at encampment proposal

A Seattle City Council committee hears testimony about expanding the areas in the city where a tent encampment could be located. Councilmember Nick Licata is hoping to find some alternatives to the Nickelsville site, which other council members have agreed to close down.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Now that Seattle is moving to shut down Nickelsville, some City Council members are proposing a new approach to open more areas of the city to legal tent encampments.

But at a public hearing Tuesday night some residents of Nickelsville testified that the proposal was too restrictive, in part because it wouldn’t allow tent encampments in residential neighborhoods.

As drafted by Councilmember Nick Licata, the proposal would allow tent encampments on about 135 city properties and 450 private properties in industrial and commercial zones. The encampments would have to be managed by an experienced shelter provider, sited on at least 5,000 square feet of land and meet health and safety standards. Camps could remain in one location for up to a year.

Nickelsville residents told the committee the West Seattle encampment has provided safety and community for people turned away from overcrowded shelters and allowed families to stay together. And eliminating residential areas as prospective camp locations, they said, perpetuates stereotypes that the homeless are dangerous and not good neighbors.

They noted that encampments sponsored by churches are not subject to zoning restrictions.

On Monday, the City Council made it clear it wants Nickelsville closed. It unanimously approved $500,000 to help move the 100 or so Nickelsville residents into shelter or other housing and to provide social services to those who want them. Seven council members earlier this month called for the West Marginal Way camp site to be shut down by Sept. 1, and Mayor Mike McGinn agreed to enforce the eviction.

Mike Keever, a Nickelsville resident, said Nickelsville saved his family when no other shelter would give them a place to stay.

“You’re not going to bribe me off with a little bit of housing if you do not replace Nickelsville with a true safety net,” he said.

But several others, including some from local church groups and formerly homeless people, testified in favor of the proposed new legislation noting that while tents aren’t an answer to homelessness, they meet an immediate need for shelter in a city where the January one-night count found almost 3,000 people sleeping outside.

“Our consistent position is that tent encampments provide a needed and safe alternative to people living in cars, in greenbelts and on the streets. We would prefer the legislation create a permanent site and include residential zoning, but we’re supporting the ordinance because it expands the options for the homeless. We do not have enough shelter,” said David Bloom, of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

Just three council members attended the hearing: Licata, Mike O’Brien and Sally Bagshaw. The committee will vote on the ordinance Wednesday, but its fate before the full council is uncertain, with seven of nine council members supporting closing Nickelsville and providing relocation services. The council majority has said tents are not an acceptable alternative to housing and the city should not sanction new encampments.

Despite the strong opposition from Share/Wheel, the operators of Nickelsville and many overnight homeless shelters, Licata said he was encouraged by testimony in support of the expanded options to locate tent encampments.

“A considerable number of people who are homeless or have lived at Nickelsville recognize that this legislation opens more possibilities than had been available in the past,” Licata said.

The current Nickelsville site has been plagued by flooding and rats, and lacks running water, electricity or bathrooms. Police have been frequently called to settle disputes among campers, but Nickelsville residents complained that the police often wouldn’t intervene because the campers themselves were trespassing.

In calling for the site to be disbanded, a majority of the council said the current location poses a “public health and safety emergency.”

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com.On Twitter @lthompsontimes

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