The city has been clear: In less than two weeks, Nickelsville's 175 residents are supposed to leave their homeless encampment in a West Seattle field or be evicted. That was the decision made back in June, when the Seattle City Council directed Mayor Mike McGinn to kick all squatters off the city-owned property, where they've been camping illegally since May 2011. Posted on a utility pole out front, a sign warns campers: "NOTICE OF ENCAMPMENT CLOSURE: This site will be closed to shelter and storage effective 9/1/2013."
But instead of residents fleeing, pilgrims are arriving every week. It's getting bigger. So what's going to happen?
On a recent sun-seared afternoon, John Jolly, 39, played tour guide to Nickelsville, where he's lived for the past three months. "It's been a blessing having somewhere to go where you're not alone," he said while walking through rows of tents and structures, surrounded by thickets of blackberry bushes. About 80 to 100 campers called Nickelsville home in June, but Jolly estimates there are now around 175. The Union Gospel Mission (UGM), contracted by the city to work with Nickelsville residents, puts that number at 125.
But anti-encampment council members are not happy with the swelling population. As Council Member Tom Rasmussen wrote in an e-mail to colleagues in late July, "I am alarmed that more people are being allowed to move onto the site... It will mean that by the deadline the Mayor has agreed to there may still be people living in Nickelsville."
But the growth shouldn't surprise Rasmussen. When the council decreed an eviction, it also allocated $500,000 to UGM to help the camp's residents move into other housing or shelters. Some people may be showing up to take advantage of UGM's services (funded by the city), and Nickelsville's population has historically swelled in summer. As a general rule, Nickelsville doesn't turn new people away—they're not about to start now. Unlike emergency shelters, Nickelsville accepts couples, families, and people with pets.
Terry Pallas, the men's ministries director at UGM, said his organization was "never asked, nor is it our place" to block new campers.
UGM's most recent report says that they've moved 24 people from Nickelsville into various housing options since they started work there in June. Pallas said he is "encouraged by the progress that we've been able to make. But it's just a drop in the bucket."
The reality of a growing population reveals Council Member Rasmussen's naiveté. Of course more people would move to Nickelsville, either to use the services he and his colleagues authorized for them or for the community that Nickelsville offers. Furthermore, it's unrealistic to think a one-time infusion of cash will end homelessness, or even house everyone in Nickelsville by September.
So what will happen? It's Mayor McGinn's job to direct a teardown of the camp—city workers and police evicting a field of people from their only homes, ripping down tents, possibly arresting people who refuse to leave. Not a pretty photo op during election season.
Asked if the mayor would enforce the deadline, McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus refused to answer directly, but said, "Right now, our primary focus is working with folks to find a new site for Nickelsville."
The city allows churches to host encampments, but the city council recently rejected a bill to permit organized encampments in certain nonresidential areas of the city. This means any nonprofits that want to host encampments must partner with religious organizations. With the help of the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) and the Church Council of Greater Seattle, Nickelsville is working to find three new sites to accommodate their numbers by the deadline. And they've found at least one, a lot owned by LIHI on South Jackson Street near 20th Avenue South. The second and third sites remain elusive, setting up a possible showdown over Labor Day weekend.
If Nickelsville can find places to relocate legally before the deadline, they'll certainly do it, said Jolly. "But if not, we'll just have to stand our ground here or start this all over again somewhere else."