Seattle opens tiny home village to fight homeless crisis

Mar 8, 2016, 5:20 PM | Updated: 7:57 pm
So far, eight tiny homes and 22 tents propped up on wood platforms dot the small site just off the ...
So far, eight tiny homes and 22 tents propped up on wood platforms dot the small site just off the busy Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in south Seattle. The third of its kind, the city is planning to build more capacity to house up to 100 people in the residential area. (Jillian Raftery/KIRO RADIO)
(Jillian Raftery/KIRO RADIO)
Hundreds of volunteers spent the three weekends prior to the March 8, 2015 opening painting the tiny homes, moving gravel to level the land, and weed whacking the property to prepare for move-in. (Jillian Raftery/KIRO RADIO) Twenty-two tents are ready to shelter new residents at Othello Village, along with eight tiny homes. The city hopes to expand the village to accommodate up to 100 people. Many of the volunteers who set up the camp are homeless themselves and may end up living in the village. (Jillian Raftery/KIRO RADIO) Case workers will be active at the Othello Village camp, helping residents apply for services and get placed into more long-term housing. (Jillian Raftery/KIRO RADIO) Sharon Lee, left, executive director of the Seattle Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), is pushing for the city to adopt a "housing first" model, to add whatever shelter they can to give the homeless a sense of stability and to help rebuild their lives. She says encampments aren't perfect, but should be a more accepted strategy. LIHI has moved 36 encampment residents to transitional or permanent housing since October. (Jillian Raftery/KIRO RADIO) Kelly and her husband, who she says was injured on the job and can't work, have been homeless for more than a year, but are stuck on a wait list to get into transitional housing. (Jillian Raftery/KIRO RADIO) Seleima and her toddler son were the first to move into the brand new Othello Village. Half of the homes are reserved for homeless families with children, while the other half will have residents placed by caseworkers from the Nickelsville encampment. (Jillian Raftery/KIRO RADIO)

Seleima never thought she would be homeless. But that’s how she found herself recently, with a toddler in tow, after losing her job at a bed and breakfast.

“Especially when you have a child, it’s always go, go, go. You’ve got to get up in the morning and just do it,” she said. “You’re just in survival mode.”

On Tuesday, her luck changed. She and her son were the first to move into the brand new Othello Village, a city-run tiny home encampment in south Seattle just off Martin Luther King, Jr. Way south of the Othello Light Rail Station.

“It’s going to get better. It can only get better,” said Seleima.

Her home is a bright Seahawks blue with green trim. At eight feet by 12 feet, it’s nothing fancy: light insulation in the walls, simple vinyl flooring, a cot, a chair, a window, a locked door. But Seleima says just to have a roof over her head is life-changing.

“It means that we’re on the right path again, to getting back on our feet,” she said. “The possibilities are endless. Just because things happen in your life doesn’t mean that’s the end of it.”

Four of the already built eight homes are reserved for families with children. Other new “villagers” will be placed in tiny homes through case workers with the Nickelsville encampment based on a seniority system, with those who have been homeless longer getting priority.

To ensure safety, all applicants will have to undergo a background check &#8212 no sex offenders allowed &#8212 and abide by a code of conduct: no liquor, no drugs, no weapons, no violence. Residents will all be required to help with the camp’s upkeep, like cleaning and security, and attend a weekly group meeting.

Though the city owns the land, the encampment, like many others, is only semi-permanent. Othello Village is authorized for a year and can be renewed for a second. In a perfect world, organizers would like to see a new permanent or transitional housing project build there, rather than the shed-like structures.

Meanwhile, the hope is that families with children can be moved into permanent housing in a matter of weeks. The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) reported moving 36 people from encampments to transitional or permanent housing since October and getting 22 people jobs.

At Othello Village, caseworkers will meet regularly with residents to figure out what barriers they face. According to outreach workers, many people experiencing homelessness don’t have ID, creating problems signing up for services, getting jobs, and finding housing.

And city leaders are hoping the Othello Village camp can be a model for other neighborhoods, and help ease the tension between homeowners who fear a wave of crime and trash with the surge of homeless, and those who are struggling to find shelter.

“We have had lots of neighbors who actually come here and volunteer and do the construction work,” said Sharon Lee, executive director of the Seattle Low Income Housing Institute.

Mike Leitner is one of those neighbors. He lives with his 14-year-old daughter in the South Brighton/Othello Park neighborhood and admits homeless camps do give him pause.

“So, a lot of questions arise: is there a homeless encampment on my daughter’s route to school? And what does that mean? Are there going to be a bunch of drugs in here and people tapping on the door in the middle of the night and trying to sell drugs? It’s a significant issue. You just have to admit that. So, how do you deal with that?”

But Leitner wants to encourage his neighbors to give the camp a chance. He was briefly homeless two years ago and hopes that he can pay forward the compassion he received.

He also thinks getting to know the new residents could actually help deter crime if more people are out and talking to each other, as well as build community.

“It was great to come out here to do work and just allow people to stop judging each other. If you’re homeless, it’s okay. It’s common,” said Leitner. “The south end has a certain stigma to it and a certain reputation that, to some extent, is founded in truth. But this is the opportunity to show people that the south end is an open door, embracing-type community.”

Businesses donated materials to build several of the homes. One man from Aberdeen even kick-started the village’s expansion by donating two big shipping containers that will be refurbished for even more living space.

Hundreds of volunteers, like Leitner, chipped in an afternoon over three weekends to paint the tiny homes cheery yellows, oranges, and greens. They also moved gravel to level the property for more construction and built platforms for tents.

That kind of reaction is what Lee says makes this a perfect place to start tiny home camps.

“We’ve had some people who have been concerned about, is there going to be more trash or crime. But one thing that has been very touching for me, at least &#8212 as you know, southeast Seattle is very diverse. There were many refugee, immigrant folks who spoke up [at public meetings] and said that it wasn’t that long ago that they were homeless,” said Lee. “You know, like refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia. When they came to this country they were homeless and they were living in refugee camps for many, many years and they could understand why this was needed.”

“So, I think that’s a little different perspective from Ballard,” she added.

Lee pledged the residents and city representatives will be good neighbors. And she said creating the tiny home encampment has already improved the neighborhood.

“Before we bought the property, this site had a woodshed on it,” said Lee. “And it was, like, totally dilapidated, rundown, and there was trash all over the place. It was the eyesore in the community.”

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Seattle opens tiny home village to fight homeless crisis