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Originally published Monday, July 29, 2013 at 9:44 PM

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City Council votes down bill to open more tent encampments

The Seattle City Council votes down a bill to expand areas of the city where tent encampments for the homeless could be located for as long as a year at a time. Nickelsville still faces its Sept. 1 move-out deadline.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Over the emotional pleas of the homeless and their advocates, a majority of the Seattle City Council on Monday voted down a bill that would have opened more areas of the city to tent encampments and created rules for the health and safety of residents.

Failure of the legislation, on a 5-4 vote, lessens the prospects of finding a new spot for the illegal encampment Nickelsville, which is under a city-imposed deadline of Sept. 1 to close after two years on vacant city property on West Marginal Way.

In June the City Council approved $500,000 to help relocate Nickelsville campers, but the outreach effort so far has placed just 18 people into housing, out of an estimated 140 residents. Some couples have been told they have to split up and others that they have to give up their pets, said Peggy Hotes, a liaison between the camp and its nonprofit sponsor, Jam for Justice.

“People are happier where they are,” she said.

In rejecting the encampment legislation, a majority of council members said tents aren’t an acceptable alternative to permanent housing and that Nickelsville’s troubled tenancy — rats and lack of running water, toilets, electricity or police enforcement — underscored the problems.

Councilmember Richard Conlin said tent encampments can detract from connecting people with services and housing. He also said suburban cities need to fund services so Seattle doesn’t end up caring for the region’s homeless.

“Very few of them have stepped up to offer even a fraction of resources as Seattle,” Conlin said.

Also voting against the legislation were Tim Burgess, Sally Clark, Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen. Several noted that Seattle spends more than $30 million a year on homeless services.

Voting in favor of expanding camps were Sally Bagshaw, Bruce Harrell, Nick Licata and Mike O’Brien.

Before the vote, more than a dozen advocates for the homeless urged the council to pass the legislation to give those sleeping outside a temporary means of survival. Several said they agreed that permanent housing was a better solution than tents, but with Seattle-area shelters full and an estimated 2,700 sleeping outside during the January one-night count, tent encampments provide an alternative to the streets or greenbelts.

“We’re dealing with a crisis situation without a crisis response,” said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on the Homeless. “If we had a flood, a fire or an earthquake that left 2,700 people homeless, we would act swiftly to marshall our resources to respond.”

Alex Becker read a letter signed by 58 Real Change vendors. He said, “when faced with the choice between sleeping in a doorway where we are vulnerable to violence and sleeping in a place where we can feel safe and be part of a community, [encampments] offer us what can be a lifesaving option.”

The legislation, sponsored by Licata, would have allowed encampments on some city and private properties in industrial and commercial zones. An experienced shelter provider would have to manage the camp and meet health and safety standards. Camps could have remained in one spot for up to a year.

Although the legislation failed, churches and other faith organizations can still host encampments.

Michael Ramos, executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, said the faith community has shouldered the burden of hosting encampments and that he had hoped, if the legislation passed, that public and private property owners would take on some of that responsibility.

“We’ll continue to look for a place for Nickelsville. It’s a matter of life and death for people to be able to gather in a safe space,” he said.

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

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