On a bitterly cold Sunday evening in December, a heavy snow blanketed the pup tents that tightly packed the parking lot of University Congregational United Church of Christ in Seattle’s University District. That wasn’t entirely a bad thing. As one of the 90 or so working-class folks who call these tents home explained to me, “The snow does provide some insulation, like an igloo. But if you don’t get up several times a night to knock some off, the weight of it will collapse your tent.”
Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) members and friends were there that night to deliver a warm, home-cooked meal to the camp residents. The chatter around the fire was lively, with the most worrisome topic being the dwindling supply of firewood. The crowd was diverse: women and men, young and old, people of color and whites. Some shared the stories of how they ended up living outdoors in such weather.
One young man, who picks up temporary jobs, said that he figures he can scrape together monthly rent for an apartment. But what he’s trying to save for on his meager income is the additional money that landlords require for the last month’s rent and a security deposit.
Many campers complained about unsanitary and unsafe conditions at the city’s emergency shelters. An elderly Black man nicknamed Serious volunteered, “Being homeless is hard on guys, but it’s much harder on women.” Nearby women agreed, describing unsavory characters around shelters making propositions about drugs and prostitution.
Taking action for survival. This was the scene at Nickelsville, the tenacious homeless encampment that is still thriving despite the hostility of its namesake, Greg Nickels, Seattle’s development-happy Democratic mayor.
The impetus for the encampment was a deteriorating situation for those without shelter. In January 2008, the “One Night Count” of Seattle-area homeless found 2,631 people outside on a freezing night when shelters were full, as usual. Meanwhile, affordable housing was disappearing from the city and Mayor Nickels was enforcing a policy of chasing the homeless from parks, greenbelts, and underneath overpasses.
By the spring, a group of homeless people decided it was time to take action to create their own solution to the problem and at the same time protest Nickels’ shameful and dangerous sweeps. Their goal: to establish a stationary home for up to 1,000 men, women, and children, with sturdy structures and accessible services, to last for as long as the need is there.
As a beginning step, while a committee looked for a suitable ongoing site, the self-dubbed Nickelodeons in September set up an encampment of about 100 people on an unused field in an industrial section of Seattle.
Within four days, Nickels sent cops to evict the campers. In the process, 25 homeless people and their supporters were arrested for peacefully resisting. Andrea Bauer and I, who were there representing Radical Women and the FSP, were two of those arrested and charged with trespassing.
After being evicted from the field, camp residents moved briefly to a small adjacent parking lot owned by the state. Since then, the Nickelodeons have had to pick up stakes three more times, because the mayor threatens each of their hosts with heavy fines for giving them a place to stay. And Nickels’ bullying hasn’t stopped there. He has also threatened to fine homeless advocates, both individuals and organizations, that are unaffiliated with Nickelsville but supportive of it.
Public and legal support to the rescue. Even before the economic downturn worsened into an acknowledged crisis, homelessness was escalating nationally. The U.S. Conference of Mayors reported that from 2007 to 2008, homelessness in cities increased on average by 12 percent.
Now that the recession’s impact is widening out and deepening, homelessness is growing even more — at the same time that state and municipal governments are planning to make deep cuts in social services and aid to those in need. In Washington, Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire has proposed a vicious state budget that would cover a $6 billion shortfall by slashing healthcare for the poor, gutting education funding, laying off thousands of state employees, and eliminating financial assistance for unemployable adults.
It’s no wonder, then, that public sympathy for Nickelsville is strong. Donations of food and clothing have poured into the encampment. When I spoke about the plight of Nickelsville at a meeting of the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council, the delegates voiced heartfelt support. Workers at the council’s food bank, who face a projected two-fold increase in demand for their services in the coming year, were especially vocal in their concern about homelessness.
Members of Campus Radical Women at the University of Washington were similarly passionate about the issue when several Nickelsville residents and my colleague Andrea spoke at one of their meetings. The UW newspaper, The Daily, which reported on the meeting in some depth and advertised the campers’ need for tarps, blankets, plywood, and the like, has been keeping readers up on major Nickelsville developments. Some favorable coverage has also come from business-owned local media, while Seattle’s homeless newspaper, Real Change, provides a steady stream of news and commentary, as do activist bloggers (www.apesmaslament.blogspot.com, www.onefalsestep.blogspot.com).
On the legal front, much-needed help for those arrested during the September eviction has come from a disparate team including pro bono lawyers from the firm of Davis Wright Tremaine; criminal defense attorneys Kevin Trombold and Richard Warner; and public defenders from The Defender Association.
In November, members of the team invited us to meet with them in the downtown offices of Davis Wright Tremaine. They explained why they were chomping at the bit to defend us pro bono (without charge): to gain legal affirmation of a basic “right to exist.” They planned also to assert that the defendants had a right under the First Amendment to protest the government’s inhumane treatment of the homeless.
A few court decisions have acknowledged the right to exist in a limited way. But lawyers in the Nickelsville case plan to argue for the right to a stable and safe place to live, not just the ability to sleep on a random sidewalk without being arrested.
The defendants are united in seeing the importance of defending the rights to have shelter and to protest and we are committed to sticking together. About 20 of us will be proceeding to a jury trial that’s scheduled to start on March 10.
In the meantime, defendants will be organizing as much community support as possible. My union, Washington Federation of State Employees Local 304, has already written to the mayor to support Nickelsville and the arrestees, asserting that, “Dissent over city policies on such a crucial issue should not be criminalized, and we strongly urge you to make sure that all charges against them are dropped.”
Perhaps the mayor and city attorney may yet heed good advice like this and drop the case. If not, a trial could have a strongly positive outcome: a well-publicized verdict of not guilty could cause a public outcry against the city’s guilt in abandoning and harassing the homeless — and force officials to adopt more civilized and compassionate policies.
Hanging in there. From its inception, Nickelsville has been a self-governing collective, which has allowed it to offer a safe haven for the homeless and to be deemed a good neighbor wherever it has been.
The Nickelodeons’ audacity, resourcefulness, and persistence are admirable. Their struggle exposes the inability of the system to provide for people’s basic needs. It is reminiscent of what the Black Panthers did when they defended their community from the cops, fed breakfast to hungry schoolchildren, and set up free medical clinics for poor people.
There are many storms ahead for this intrepid band of tent-dwellers. But surely there will be many people of conscience by their side.
Published originally in the Freedom Socialist newspaper.