Nickelsville fights to survive

July 30, 2009

Leela Yellesetty reports on the battle of a Seattle homeless community to keep from being evicted once again.

FACING EVICTION from the empty state land it was occupying, the Seattle homeless community of Nickelsville moved on July 23 to what residents hope will be their permanent home at Terminal 107 Park last Thursday.

But the very next day, the Port of Seattle issued a notice for the homeless to vacate the property.

This is unfortunately nothing new for Nickelodeans (as residents refer to themselves), who have moved seven times since setting up last September. The camp was originally set up on city land to draw attention to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' policy of sweeping the homeless--and providing no assistance at all.

As Revel Smith, communications director for the homeless newspaper Real Change, says:

When he was originally doing the sweeps, the phone number people were given for social services was a dead line. It's a very, very cruel and difficult system.

People need a stable place to stay. A lot of people at Nickelsville are able to retain jobs, get back on their feet. Otherwise, they're left with the downtown shelter system, which is inadequate to handle the 2,500 or so people that don't fit on a regular basis. Nickelsville's intent is to keep a stable, self-organized, self-sufficient community where people have their basic needs met and can find work, come home, sleep, have their possessions in one place and have a roof over their heads. They can't get that anywhere else.

Residents of Nickelsville take down their camp after state officials threatened to evict them
Residents of Nickelsville take down their camp after state officials threatened to evict them (Darrin Hoop | SW)

DONNA BEAVERS and her husband have been at Nickelsville since the beginning. Donna became homeless a year ago due to domestic violence. Before coming to Nickelsville, she was sleeping on sidewalks and in doorways, due to lack of available shelters.

Taking a break with her dog while residents and supporters hustle to pack up tents and supplies, Donna says:

Nickelsville is a good encampment. We're all like a family. The mayor doesn't like us, though. We even tried to go meet the mayor one time, and he heard we were coming, so he shut the elevators down so we couldn't go up to see him, and then he sent the security down to tell us to leave the property.

I think the mayor should be trying to help homeless people, instead of trying to sweep them out. Nickelsville is trying to solve a problem by giving people a place to live who can't afford housing because it's so expensive. To all your readers, please tell them to help support us. Write the governor, write the mayor, tell them to give us permanent land. We're citizens, too.

What you can do

Please call or e-mail the Port of Seattle Director Tay Yoshitani and Port of Seattle Commissioners, and tell them to let the Nickelodeons stay and negotiate with them: CEO Tay Yoshitani, 206-728-3000; Commissioner Bill Bryant, 206-728-3034; Commissioner John Creighton, 206-728-3034; Commissioner Patricia Davis, 206-728-3034; Commissioner Lloyd Hara, 206-728-3034; Commissioner Gael Tarleton, 206-728-3034; Mayor Greg Nickels, 206-684-4000.

Donations are welcome. Supplies are needed, including nails, plywood, 2-by-4s, food and water. Nickelsville also has a need for used bicycles in good working condition to ride to and from bus stops.

Please drop bicycles and other supplies at the camp at Terminal Park T-107, 4700 West Marginal Way SW. To get there: take the #21 bus from 1st and Pine and get off at the Harbor Island Terminal. Walk one mile south on West Marginal Way.

You can make a tax-deductible monetary donation to help pay for cell phones and other expenses at the Veterans for Peace Chapter 92 Web site.

Randy Pellam, who's been at Nickelsville for the past six weeks, had the same message:

We're basically trying to get the government to take responsibility and allow them to live without criminalizing homelessness.

Really, it's killing people. Seattle's proud of the fact, though they would never admit it, that the average age of death for a homeless person here is 47 years old. They lose 30 years or more of their life because the living is so hard. People think they're lazy or bums or whatever. I've had hard jobs. Being homeless is 10 times harder than most jobs. And it kills you.

In addition to the difficulty of sheer survival, the homeless are particularly vulnerable to violence. Pellam describes a time when he was sleeping on a park bench, and a group of young people came up and hit him on the head with beer bottle, looking for a fight. Luckily, one of the group said to leave him alone. As Pellam remembers:

They didn't want to go against their friend, so they left, but otherwise, who knows what could have happened. A lot of the attacks are never reported. A lot of people have friends they knew who were murdered because they were homeless. We've had some horrific ones in this state, like a man in a wheelchair who was set on fire in an alley--just horrible.

Unfortunately, because the government portrays us as criminals, people who don't know any better think it's okay for them to victimize us, too.

Tearing into the idea that homeless people are criminals or drug addicts or have something else wrong with them, Randy cites numerous studies showing no such correlation.

"The biggest reason people become homeless in this country is economic," he said. "It's because of the lack of affordable housing. Years ago, there was more affordable and subsidized housing, but it's been cut back. It's getting wiped out by developers, especially in this area, where even people with full-time jobs can't afford the rent."

He brings up another study that found it costs far more to keep people homeless than in housing--the estimate is it costs 10 times more to the taxpayer, due mainly to increased police and emergency services. Randy continues:

So they go on portraying the homeless as being deserving of this type of punishment and then charging the taxpayer for it, it's ridiculous.

You know I talked about subsidized housing. The truth is they haven't actually done away with it. Now they subsidize the rich instead of the poor. They just shift it. The whole emphasis is on shifting the cost onto the little guy and fattening the bank accounts of the few guys at the top.

That's what the lawmakers, the politicians, the companies have been doing for decades, and they're doing it to even a greater extent and getting better at it, and it's putting the whole world in jeopardy, frankly.

DESPITE THE tough conditions, Nickelsville in some ways feels like a welcome alternative to the ruthless inhumanity of capitalist society. The camp is run completely on volunteer labor, and all decisions and elected positions are voted on by residents. What meager resources Nickelodeans have are often shared freely. In fact, the encampment is so well self-managed and peaceful that crime rates tend to fall in neighborhoods where it's located.

In a letter in to the Port Commissioner, Nickelodeans emphasized that their camp stands in a long tradition:

Our Nickelsville community has resolved to take a stand on a historic piece of land. The Duwamish People have called it many things. One name was Yil-eq'-qud--where the horse clams are. People have lived where we are now for over 1,400 years. Within 30 years of the first settlers of European ancestry settling on this land, in the 1930s, squatters and shantytowns were here. That is how those people survived that depression.

Right now, Nickelsville is working frantically to build public and legal pressure against being forced to move yet again. The local Veterans for Peace Chapter 92 has been instrumental in Nickelsville's legal campaign since the start. As VFP organizer Gerry Condon explained:

The number one reason we're involved with Nickelsville is that 25 percent of the homeless nationwide are veterans. That percentage is roughly true for the people here at Nickelsville. People are sent off to fight very dubious imperialist wars, and with all this ra-ra, and politicians yelling support the troops, but then when they come back with PTSD and other serious problems, they're basically thrown out, used and abused.

We also see billions of dollars being poured like there's no tomorrow into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and these illegal occupations. That money could be used here for affordable housing; for health care, including mental health care for the veterans; education; jobs. But when we start talking about social issues, like single-payer health care and stuff like that, suddenly there's no money.

Something is way skewed. What we're looking at really is a perpetual war of the rich against the poor, and Nickelsville is one front of that.

Not only do they need and deserve our support, but especially those who are organizing themselves, like the people at Nickelsville, can ultimately become the cutting edge of the struggle. They can really start to expose the gross inequality and racism and militarism of the U.S. government. So just being with them, letting them know they have support makes a big, big difference.

I was impressed and glad to see the number of different progressive organizations out here, so they obviously get it. I'm proud to be part of an organization that sees that, too.

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