Last week, city officials swept a previously sanctioned homeless encampment on Dearborn Street, forcing at least 16 residents to move elsewhere. At the time, city officials said they offered everyone living in the camp a spot at a new encampment in Othello. The problem: The nonprofit Nickelsville helps run that Othello encampment and Dearborn residents voted earlier this year to sever ties with Nickelsville. That meant some campers were unwilling to go to the Othello site and were left with few other options.
Now, that small group has found a home at the Umoja P.E.A.C.E. Center in the Central District. Polly Trout, an organizer with the nonprofit Patacara Community Services, says about 20 people are living on the site now.
But the Umoja P.E.A.C.E. Center site is only temporary. To operate legally, the campers will have to negotiate a longer-term agreement with a property owner and a religious organization. Trout says campers were in the process of trying to do that when the sweep happened. Scott Lindsay, the mayor's public safety adviser, told me last week "that effort was not mature at all."
Trout says she's looking for a site that's about 5,000 square feet with good drainage and a nearby bus line where campers can live for least three months. In the meantime, she says the camp needs "tarps, clothing, hygiene supplies, food, and camping gear."
One key difference about this new temporary encampment: It does not require strict sobriety the way Nickelsville-run camps have.
In an update earlier this week, Trout wrote that the camp allows "no illegal activity." However:
We are emphasizing safety, civility, health, wellness, compassion, and neighborliness. I am praying that we can secure everyone’s immediate survival needs quickly so that we can turn our full attention to meeting long term needs: housing, education, employment, supportive services, counseling, and medical care. Harm reduction supplies are being made available to camp members who need them and we are in the process of updating the camp’s program model to align with best practices and contemporary research for substance abuse treatment and counseling. My vision is to cultivate a community where people who use intoxicants responsibly, people who are struggling with [addiction], people in recovery, and people who choose sobriety ALL feel safe and supported together.
This is controversial. Peggy Hotes—an organizer with the nonprofit Nickelsville, the group these campers cut ties with—wrote in a letter to Seattle City Council members that a "low-barrier" encampment is "not a sustainable model because when you're high or drunk it's impossible to make rational decisions, including decisions on moderating the intake of substances."
Homeless advocates regularly make the point that sobriety requirements at shelters and encampments exclude people struggling with alcohol and drug addiction, effectively forcing them into more dangerous places like the Jungle. Yet, the city faces constant neighborhood freakouts over opening even highly regulated tent encampments. Given that, it's hard to imagine Mayor Ed Murray's administration tolerating a low-barrier encampment like this for long. And that means this group could face another sweep sooner or later.
I've got requests in to the mayor's office and the city's Human Services Department about the rules governing all of this and whether they'll allow a camp without a sobriety requirement to operate on private land. I'll update when I hear back.