Legislation intended to assist tent cities is meeting opposition from the very groups it's aimed at helping. I'd heard that possibility when looking into the legislation for my story in this week's paper, and confirmed it in conversations late last week. A little background: Nick Licata will introduce legislation on Wednesday, supported by fellow council member Mike O'Brien as well as Mayor McGinn, to allow longer-term tent cities to set up on public and private land in Seattle. The measure moves beyond what is already allowed under temporary use permits (which only last six months) or the 2011 ordinance allowing encampments on religious properties. If the council doesn't go for it, there's alternate legislation planned to fund an environmental review of the current Nickelsville site so that encampment could become, perhaps more safely and healthily, an even longer-term camp than the two years it's been squatting on this city land.
There will doubtless be opposition on the council, but there's also opposition coming from a different direction: SHARE, which runs Tent City 3—a camp that shelters up to 100 otherwise shelterless people—and Nickelsville, which supports a similar number of residents.
Why are Nickelsville and SHARE so opposed to legislation that would expand legal encampments?
Tent City 3 is opposed, says Jarvis Capucion from SHARE, because they don't want to be restricted to locations that are zoned nonresidential, which this bill would do. They had some conversations with Licata's office about the legislation, and Capucion tells me, "We have expressed our concerns regarding the residential zoning restriction." He hadn't seen the legislation yet when we spoke, but "from what we hear... our concerns were not addressed." Barring them from residential zones blocks them from about 65 percent of the city. "If it’s allowed in a church in a residential area, why wouldn’t it be allowed in a vacant lot in the same residential area?" he asks. "Our position is: It's redlining, it's discrimination, and it plays on fears and phobias of homeless people." He also points out that other jurisdictions in the county don't have a similar restriction. "This would be a step back for us."
For Nickelsville, at which the legislation is ostensibly aimed—Food Lifeline wants to buy the city property Nickelsville is currently using, and neighbors have been badgering the city to move Nickelsville out—they just don't see this legislation as useful for them.
They won't be using it, say residents, and they also want to support Tent City 3's opposition. Nickelsville wants to find a site (two sites, actually, to accomodate their ever-growing numbers) that will host them for two years; this legislation only allows encampments for up to one year. "We're going to use the religious ordinance that’s already in existence, find a religious group for our signatory, and find some land," says Nickelsville resident Trace De Garmo. "We’re not going to fight city council on this legislation," he continues, "We just let them know that we don’t support it."
The more temporary roving camps can still use temporary use permits, say my city sources, so they're not actually losing anything with this. But there's a fear that if this legislation passes, it will become the new norm—when other jurisdictions want to update their codes or other agreements expire, it'll be a go-to idea to limit camps in residential zones.
But not all advocates for the homeless are opposing this. Real Change director Tim Harris spoke in glowing terms, calling this legislation "groundbreaking and progressive" and "the best legislation that we can get through city council." He's aware of the opposition, but told me, "I’m not one to let perfect get in the way of good... I mean, one of Nickelsville’s complaints is that as an illegal encampment, as squatters, they’re not able to get police support, there is bureaucracy in the way of them getting the fuller support that they need. What the city is trying to do is provide options and take steps to legitimize tent cities. I hope they come around to supporting it, because it’s in their best interests."
The weird spot this puts council members in is that people who don't have the best track record supporting the homeless (cough, cough, Tim Burgess) can align themselves with homeless groups to oppose the legislation.
This fight is going to get weird and interesting fast.