The Nickelsville homeless encampment near I-5 on Dearborn Street is counting down to an eviction.
In recent weeks, the camp's residents have twice voted to oust Scott Morrow, the camp's longtime staff person. That move effectively invalidates the agreement that allows them to occupy their current home at 1010 South Dearborn Street and severs their ties with the nonprofit organization Nickelsville. Now, instead of relocating, residents say they plan to stay on the Dearborn site beyond the eviction date and are in search of a new nonprofit organization to oversee the camp.
"Yes, everyone here has problems. We're not denying that," said Troy Morgan, a resident of the camp and its external affairs coordinator, as he walked through the camp on Thursday night. "But people come in here to get off the streets. This is where they get safety and safe harbor."
Nickelsville at Dearborn is a self-managed encampment, meaning residents vote on most decisions, but it operates under an agreement between the landowner, a host church, and two nonprofit organizations: Nickelsville and the Low Income Housing Institute. Under that agreement, the camp is allowed by the city to stay open because they have a church host. The church in this case—the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd—has an agreement with the property owner, ABCD Trust. That agreement is contingent on oversight from Nickelsville, which is largely run by Morrow, according to the church's pastor, Steve Olsen. Residents of the camp abide by a code of conduct that includes a ban on drugs and weapons.
In a move that almost exactly mirrors what happened around this time last year, campers approved a vote of "no confidence" in Morrow last month. After that vote, they were warned by Olsen that unless they reinstated Morrow (as they did last year), they'd be facing eviction.
In an email to campers, Olsen wrote that he has "great confidence in the Nickelsville model of self-government." But the church's "understanding when we contracted with Nickelsville was that Mr. Morrow, as staff, would be our chief liaison and communication link," Olsen wrote. "If that is not to be the case, we will no longer be able to serve as church host for the Dearborn site."
Faced with that decision, residents gathered around a fire on Thursday night to vote on whether to reinstate Morrow. A majority of those present at the meeting voted to uphold his ouster. Two days later, camp residents say they received a notice from the church that the camp will be considered closed as of 12:01 a.m. Saturday, February 20. Anyone still on site will be trespassing. About 30 people currently live at the camp.
Residents want Morrow gone because they say he has retaliated against people who disagreed with him by withholding resources like new tents and cleaning of trash and portable toilets.
Ahead of the vote, Morgan described Morrow as "nothing but a dictator to us."
At the vote, one resident, Ed Lozon spoke against ousting Morrow, saying he's never had any problems with him.
"I've been homeless off and on for 10 years," Lozon said. "I've been in some bad spots and this here is like night and day... Is it really worth taking this whole camp down?"
Robin Morgan, another resident of the camp, said, "We all know we're damned if we do, damned if we don't. I want to go down fighting. I'm tired of the threats."
Morrow declined to comment to The Stranger. Sharon Lee, the director of the Low Income Housing Insitute, which helps fund the camp, calls Morrow an "enforcer."
"They portray Scott as a tyrant," she said in an interview. "In effect, for my purposes, he's keeping the place safe."
Lee said she believes campers' disagreement with Morrow is actually over his firing of organizer David Delgado, whom Morrow hired to help run the Dearborn camp and then fired in January for "non-performance of basic organizing tasks and core work assignments," according to Nickelsville documents. Delgado disputes his firing, saying he repeatedly raised security concerns about drugs and weapons in the camp, which Morrow ignored. Delgado also said that, unlike other encampments in the city, the Dearborn camp doesn't get case management services from LIHI to help residents find jobs and permanent housing. Lee said her organization does in fact provide case managers for the site.
Lee acknowledges that campers have repeatedly raised concerns about Morrow, but said last year's problems arose out of Morrow being overworked running multiple encampments. Hiring Delgado was supposed to ease that workload, Lee said. She said "the lesson we've learned from this" is to dedicate a full-time LIHI staffer to the organization's soon-to-open Othello encampment.
Olsen, the pastor, said in an interview that he agreed last year that Morrow was "overextended" and supported the hiring of a new staffer to help out. In his January email to residents, he said the church agreed with the decision to fire Delgado. The camp's decision to sever ties with Morrow has "made it impossible for us to move forward with our contract," Olsen said in an interview. "I know a lot of the people in that encampment and I care for them deeply. I feel very sad about what has happened."
Olsen said if campers reversed their decision about Morrow within the next week, they may be able to stay. That appears unlikely. A representative for the company that owns the property, ABCD Trust, could not immediately be reached for comment.
"I think they're under the misimpression that if they show no confidence in Scott, another nonprofit is going to come in and bail them out," Lee said. "I don't know another nonprofit willing to pay the porta-potty bill, the trash bill, the water bill. In any case, that's not [going to be] the nonprofit the church has agreed to nor that city has issued a permit for."
Campers hope to prove Lee wrong. They say they're in search of a new nonprofit to oversee the camp and they plan to stay in their current spot even without a valid agreement with the landowner.
"We've got the support of more people than we realize," Troy Morgan told fellow campers on Thursday.
The camp has set up a Facebook page called "Occupy Camp Dearborn," where they're asking community members to donate food and supplies and to "come down [on February 20] and hold the location with them in the event of a forcible eviction."
Ansel Herz contributed reporting.