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LIHI, Nickelsville split up over Seattle homeless camp management

A line of tiny houses stand with their backs to the adjacent street at a homeless encampment in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Two of Seattle’s most prominent homeless encampment operators are at odds. It’s led to one kicking the other out of three of Seattle’s major tent encampments.

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Low Income Housing Institute Executive Director Sharon Lee wrote to Nickelsville leaders on March 20 that it was ending its five-year relationship with the group. She cited “fundamental differences in our organizations’ approaches and aspirations.”

“While we are proud of the good work we’ve accomplished together in providing shelter and community to hundreds of people and families experiencing homelessness, it has become clear that these differences are not reconcilable,” Lee wrote.

Residents of the camps quickly responded with their own letter saying, “Please back off. Do not attempt to push us out of Nickelsville. You have no right to do so.” Nickelsville officials have further responded through their lawyer. According to Real Change, Attorney Ted Hunter wrote:

Your allegations that Nickelsville has failed to provide services and must be replaced are defamatory to the organization and, furthermore, have introduced anxiety and fear to the residents of those villages at a very vulnerable time in their lives.

Real Change further reports that residents of the camps are not being kicked out. Rather, management is changing. LIHI will no longer pay for Nickelsville staff, and provide its own personnel.

Homeless camps

LIHI began forming homeless encampments over the past couple years under a contract with the city — they are among the city’s nine authorized homeless encampments. Nickelsville was subcontracted to manage the communities (Nickelsville formed in 2008 as organized homeless communities).

Lee’s letter was sent to request a series of items and documents pertaining to the operation of the camps.

“We are giving you one week to wind down operations at Othello, Georgetown, and Northlake Villages. Provided you cooperate with us we will pay for (Nickelsville) staff and expenses through March 25,” Lee wrote.

LIHI

The main issue, according to Lee, emerged as the two parties attempted to work out a memorandum of understanding this month. LIHI wants more case management, and Nickelsville wants more self-management.

Nickelsville voted to reject LIHI’s MOU. LIHI didn’t like Nickelsville’s version. Lee wrote it undermined “key aspects of the program and our working relationship.”

Those key differences are:

  • Case management: LIHI says that Nickelsville has often been a barrier to LIHI providing case management to residents in order to move them into housing, get them health care, and other services. “Furthermore, Nickelsville staff and leadership have shown a consistent pattern of disrespectful and sometimes harmful behavior towards on-site case management staff,” Lee writes.
  • Transparency and handling of bars, incidents, and exits: “Bars” are when Nickelsville staff ban a resident from a camp for infractions. LIHI argues that bars have been used for arbitrary offenses and minor infractions — potentially for discriminatory purposes. LIHI also contends that it does not receive information on how Nickelsvilles is handling bars.
  • Staffing support for villages: LIHI objects to Nickelsville’s method of staffing, which reportedly keeps few people at the sites. LIHI feels that staff often observe incidents after they occur.

The Wallyhood blog further commented on the issue, which affects the Northlake camp near its community.

Somewhere at the root of the case management issue is a difference in philosophy between LIHI/City of Seattle and Nickelsville. The former regards the purpose of the villages as temporary housing while permanent housing is found, and the case managers a critical part of moving residents on to that permanent housing. Nickelsville, for its part, sees the villages as long-term housing for many who don’t see a path to different housing situations for themselves.

Nickelsville response

A letter from Nickelsville residents in Georgetown, Othello, Northlake, and Union was sent to LIHI in response to the split.

We came to our communities because they were Nickelsville. They operated fairly and decently and gave us many advantages. You have always claimed these communities were for us.

In fact, by trying to chase out our structure and community, you are depriving us of the major benefits in the agreements both of you have made.

Please back off. Do not attempt to push us out of Nickelsville. You have no right to do so.

A subsequent letter from Nickelsville staff member Scott Morrow to Seattle Human Services Interim Director Jason Johnson called LIHI’s claims regarding case management as “false and ridiculous.”

“You have accepted false statements from the Low Income Housing Institute and others while giving us no opportunity to know your concerns or request a response,” the letter continued.

KIRO Radio Reporter Aaron Granillo contributed to this article.

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