Neighbors speak as Othello Village readies for homeless residents

Volunteers helped build the tiny houses at Othello Village, a homeless encampment located in Seattle's Rainier Valley. (Photo by Matt Mills McKnight for the South Seattle Emerald.)
Volunteers helped build the tiny houses at Othello Village, a homeless encampment located in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. (Photo by Matt Mills McKnight for the South Seattle Emerald.)

A version of this story originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

Residents in South Seattle met with city officials at the New Holly Gathering Hall on Thursday to discuss the Othello Village homeless encampment, as volunteers made the final push towards the camp’s opening date of March 8.

The room was filled to capacity Thursday, which the second neighborhood meeting on the subject (a previous meeting took place Feb. 16 at the same location). According to the Low Income Housing Institute, the nonprofit that is organizing and managing the camp, Othello Village will have up to 100 residents in a tiny-house village on a private property at 7544 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Opinions from the audience ranged from concerned to supportive for an experiment referred to by Seattle Mayor Ed Murray as “uncharted territory.”

Sharon Lee, executive director of LIHI, told meeting attendees that the organization’s city-sanctioned properties in Ballard and Interbay have helped its residents.

“Since October, 36 people that lived in those encampments have obtained LIHI housing, 22 people have obtained employment,” she said.

Prior to the start of the meeting resident Pete Mahowald handed attendees information on the dangers of encampments he printed from a local blog. Mahowald, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years and watched crime drop in the area, said he lives about a block away from Othello Village and has a 2-year-old son.

“I’m worried about the park (Othello Playground) and potential for problems there because of the encampment. While I support helping people in our city without homes, I don’t know that this is the solution.”

Daphne Schneider, a member of Othello Station Community Action Team (OSCAT), pointed out that homeless people already live in South Seattle.

“There are already people living in cars who are our neighbors,” she said. “Many of us want the diversity in the Othello corridor to continue, and that includes the homeless.”

Among the city officials present were Council President Bruce Harrell, Deputy Mayor Hyeok Kim, Captain Mike Washburn of the Seattle Police Department’s South Precinct, Diane Sugimura, Director of Planning & Community Development, and Sola Plumacher, Acting Director of the Human Services Department.

Kim told the crowd that organized encampments have been allowed for almost 15 years, saying Washington law long allowed encampments to be located on the private property of religious institutions. In 2014, the city council authorized non-religious private entities to host encampments in a similar fashion, she said.

“As a temporary (12-month) lease on the land, the city did not have to go through the process with respect to the community meetings,” Kim said. “We did not do a very good job at the Feb. 16 meeting to explain why an appeal was not allowed — it’s under a city ordinance we are operating.”

LIHI’s Lee said that the organization had an advisory committee of community members who will decide whether the Othello Village is operating properly. Their opinion would affect the renewal of the site’s status as a city-approved encampment.

Kim expressed as much: “We’re happy to come back to the community — and through the community advisory committee — for input and advice on [the decision for renewal].”

Ultimately the possibility of Othello Village being renewed for another year is an executive action that rests with the mayor’s office.

LIHI will manage the Village’s services, and Lee said the organization plans to put in two bathrooms with running water and two showers. Residents will be trained in security, she told community members at the meeting, and there will be additional phone numbers available for neighbors who have complaints or concerns, she said.

When the encampment opens, residents will use portable toilets and hand sanitizer, and grey water for dishes, Lee said.

Plumacher of Human Services said the residents at the city’s current camps are invested in their communities and she expects that to be similar at the Othello site.

They are engaged with safety, litter and other activities. It’s important to highlight they will be participating in that here,” she said.

She added that her department will also help provide resources for employment opportunities and other services to eventually transition people out of homelessness.

Despite the generally optimistic tone of the panelists, Captain Mike Washburn of SPD South Precinct said that calls to law enforcement rose slightly in parts of the city where sanctioned encampments reside. Most of the calls to police are related to disturbances within the encampments.

“These are very low crime areas right now, some of the lowest in the South Precinct, so we’re going to notice a spike or impact and we’re going to address that immediately,” Washburn said.

Kim said city-sanctioned camps are a learning experience for everyone.

“[We’re] playing a role that we have not played in the past 14 to 15 years in our city, region and state. In addition to good will, there’s a role for the city to play, ensuring compliance,” she said.

Community member Eric Espenhorst, who said he lived close to the encampment and volunteered during a recent work party, asked the city officials about the long-term plan for homelessness.

“There are currently more than 3,000 homeless people in Seattle, this is not going to make a dent in the problem,” he said.

Lee said the city is working on an upcoming levy for voter approval that will address low-cost affordable housing.

“We’re talking $300, $400, $500 per month,” she said. “Otherwise if you’re homeless. how can you ever pay market rent of $1,800 per month? In the short term we have to look at emergency survival measures.”

Mahowald, pleaded with the officials for more transparency. “We live here. I’m not trying to be negative; we just want to be notified about what’s going on.”

Paul Carlson, who’s lived in the New Holly neighborhood for 12 years, and previously worked with the City of Seattle, Harborview Medical Center, and United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (UNICH) had some pointed questions.

“What possessed you to do this? Why would the city change its longstanding policies of merely tolerating encampments to actually make it official city policy?” Carlson reminded the panel of a recent story that pointed out his former boss at UNICH’s opposition to the temporary homeless encampment idea.

According to Carlson the City of Seattle spends more money on homelessness proportionally than most other cities in the United States, with the exception of New York City and San Francisco. “Something is fundamentally wrong with our system; a band-aid of putting little 100 person tent cities around will not help.

Carlson’s comment was met with applause by some in attendance.

Kim said the encampments address the “realities on the ground, today,” but that encampments aren’t the city’s only answer to homelessness.

“Those realities are that sanctioned-tent encampments are a safer option, they are not a solution to homelessness and we couldn’t agree more,” she said. “This is why we are investing in rapid rehousing and continue to invest in the housing first approach. … Unfortunately it’s not an either/or situation. We’re doing an ‘and-and’ approach.”

Mona Lee, a well-known organizer in the Othello Neighborhood, said she wanted to do something positive for the people who will live at Othello Village.

“If we’re going to make this project successful, we’re going to need good neighbors — and we’re all neighbors. We must see these people as neighbors, invite them for potlucks and neighborhood cleanups…these are people just like us,” she said.

Pastor Ed Choi of Rainier Valley Church said he wanted to help the community but expressed frustration that his and other congregations had been left out of the process.

Homeless is not your problem, or my problem, it’s our problem,” Choi said.

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