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Friday, October 31, 2008

The Nickelsville Saga

posted by on October 31 at 11:45 AM

Posted by News Intern Aaron Pickus

The conflict surrounding Nickelsville, a self-proclaimed “independent community” that’s currently located in a parking lot across the street from the University Christian Church at 15th Ave NE and NE 50th St, is defined by the encampment’s amorphous group of supporters and a campaign by the city of Seattle to shut it down.

The Department of Planning and Development is accusing the church of violating local land-use law, and charging that SHARE/WHEEL, the group that runs a separate encampment called Tent City (currently located at Haller Lake Methodist Church in North Seattle), is also behind Nickelsville—in violation of an agreement between the city and SHARE. Under that agreement, SHARE can operate only one tent city within the city’s limits.

On October 16, the city’s Department of Planning and Development sent UCC and SHARE a letter saying that SHARE was in violation of the March 2002 Consent Decree between SHARE and the city. The city has also charged that the church is violating land-use law by “maintaining an illegal encampment within a parking lot” and “eliminating the required off-street parking” for UCC.

UCC pastor Janetta Cravens Boyd says her church is primarily concerned with “creatively caring for the homeless” and “trying to create some understanding and advocacy for the homeless.” UCC has not yet decided how to respond to the city’s letter.

SHARE/WHEEL, meanwhile, strongly maintains that it is not responsible for Nickelsville. However, the group of people organizing Nickelsville include past and current members of SHARE. The most prominent past SHARE member is Scott Morrow, whom Nickelsville resident Aaron Coyler describes as “an unpaid staff-person for Nickelsville.” Morrow resigned from his seat on the SHARE/WHEEL board on August 1. In addition to his work with Nickelsville, Morrow is currently also a consultant for SHARE and, though not on the payroll, receives benefits.

Sean A. Russel, an attorney for SHARE, says that SHARE has “lived by the letter of the consent decree.” Coyler says Morrow is at the Nickelsville site nearly every day.

Shortly after arriving at the site last Friday night, I watched Morrow moderate a dispute between a camp security officer and another resident accused of skipping out on his security shift. Morrow refused to comment on his role at Nickelsville.

Tim Harris, executive director of Real Change, says Morrow’s name “in a lot of peopleís minds is synonymous with SHARE. In the absence of Scott [Morrow], SHARE is stretched very thin as an organization.” When asked what the relationship was between SHARE and Nickelsville, Harris responded, “there is obviously a lot of overlap between the two organizations” but “itís really important for them to retain [a] legal distinction.”

Real Change provided the tents for Nickelsville, and Harris says the community “relies on us for the political mobilization” and looks to Real Change for publicizing the encampment.

If SHARE/WHEEL isn’t organizing Nickelsville, than who is? Officially, Bellevue’s Veterans For Peace, Chapter 92. When I asked Russel why the city is accusing SHARE of supporting Nickelsville financially—by, for example, paying for four portable toilets—he reiterated, “There has been no financial support” from SHARE.

Harris didn’t think it was likely that SHARE had supported Nickelsville financially, saying that he’d be “really surprised if [SHARE] were sloppy enough to do that. Itíd be dumb and sloppy.” Officials at DPD, which made the accusations, didn’t respond to calls for comment.

It’s hard to say exactly how many people are living in Nickelsville, because the residents are transient, but estimates range between 80 and 100. Some residents only stay for a short period; many are kicked out for violating the Nickelsville Rules of Conduct.

I had the opportunity to visit Nickelsville last week. The parking lot where it is located gently slopes to the west creating a constant feeling of slight imbalance. Residents socialized in a small sitting area near the entrance, chatting and smoking. The camp itself is organized as a grid of pink pup tents with a centrally located open-air kitchen. Some tents are elevated on pallets, others are not. During Nickelsville’s nightly meeting, a resident who calls himself “The Penny King” offered to give residents pallets for a penny each. There were many takers. The four somehow-paid-for portable toilets hide in the southeast corner of the site. A sign is posted on one of the doors advertising a 12-step Bible study at UCC.

The fate of this new location is uncertain. A meeting last Wednesday at City Hall between representatives of SHARE, UCC, the City’s Attorney’s Office, DPD, and the Department of Planning and Health ended without any resolution. Russel says that although both sides agreed to “continue communicating to resolve the issue … no meeting was scheduled for the future.” According to the March 2002 Consent Decree, when conflicts like the current one arise, SHARE and the City must go through mediation. When asked what the next step in the conflict would be, Russel said, “it’s the city’s call.”

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you can't build a condo over a certain height so i certainly don't see why you can erect a makeshift camp in a place not zoned for it.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | October 31, 2008 1:01 PM

Aaron: This is good political reporting with bad politics. You've written a very long story about homeless people that doesn't focus on their needs. You've written a story about Nickelsville- created and so-named to protest the Nickels administrations' aggressive homeless sweeps-- without even mentioning the sweeps. The question of how the Nickels administration plans to respond to Nickelsville is important. But it's not the only, and I would argue not even the most important, issue at play here.

Posted by Trevor | October 31, 2008 1:47 PM

Why'd you bury the City's refusal to respond at all (much less honestly) to your requests for comment and information? Suggests why this report seems a bit thin and smeary.

Posted by tomasyalba | October 31, 2008 1:54 PM

@1- the Church is exempt under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2001 (RLUIPA)

Posted by LH | October 31, 2008 2:27 PM

The law's been challenged (and upheld) to the Supremes but only as it relates to the prisoner portion of RLUIPA. There hasn't been a ruling to zoning I guess this is what hizhonor is hanging his hat on. That'll be a blast -- The City of Seattle VS University Christian Church and Nickelsville.

Posted by LH | October 31, 2008 2:44 PM

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