By Laura Ohata
Northwest Asian Weekly
I walk down a deserted street toward the Nickelsville homeless camp. I am a small woman, I am wearing a large camera, and I am alone.
Surrounded by a chain-link fence, 20 tents and 12 tiny wooden structures cling to a hillside at the foot of the I-5 and I-90 highways. Nickelsville moved to the temporary Dearborn Street location at the edge of the International District (ID) three weeks ago. While I wait at the security gate, a well-dressed, African American woman retrieves an empty soup pot she used to donate a hot meal to the hungry community.
“You know, it is them today, but it could be me tomorrow,” she says. “I could be homeless.”
Poverty in King County is a serious concern. There are 9,294 homeless people that live in the city of Seattle, according to the “One Night Count” taken on Jan. 24th, 2014. Of these, 6,171 people stayed in indoor shelters or transitional housing, while 3,123 people slept outside. These figures represented a 14% annual increase in the number of homeless individuals over 2013.
Matthew Kurstin, the external relations coordinator, greets me at the security gate. After offering me a hotdog with chili, he introduces me to the camp historian, Richard Gilbert. Together, we walk along the tents and wooden structures perched on cinderblocks. “Wouldn’t you like to see this place in the mud?” says Kurstin. “The rain and cold affect us more than the snow. These tents don’t keep you dry. Eventually, everything gets wet. We want to build more wooden structures.”
Nickelsville lacks amenities most of us take for granted. There is no running water for laundry, cooking, and hot showers. “If we had restrooms, we wouldn’t have to use honey buckets,” says Kurstin. Transportation is another issue for the homeless, making it difficult to get to work or to doctor appointments.
Yet, the homeless still gather at Nickelsville. Sleeping on the streets alone, the homeless fall prey to violence and robbery. Formed in 2008 and named for former Mayor Gregory J. Nickels, the camp offers secure, temporary housing for 40 men and women, young and old, college students, veterans, minimum-wage workers, and the disabled. Each camper serves on mandatory security patrols each week, along with other community service hours. “Affordable housing is the problem,” said Gilbert. Some of us can’t qualify. Some of us are able bodied, but have mental disabilities. It all needs to be addressed.”
The Dearborn site in the ID represents the 22nd relocation of the Nickelsville community. “What we want is a permanent camp. We can’t go from home to home. We have a permit to stay for 16 months. If we please the landlord and the city, we can stay,” said Gilbert. “If we don’t, we are forced to find another home.” The city is reluctant to grant Nickelsville a permanent location, yet the alternative is that the homeless have to sleep in business doorways or under bridges.
“We want to get away from the stereotype that every homeless person out there is the same way, and that the homeless don’t want to work,” says Kurstin. “We like to work.” Residents in the camp include two college students who don’t make enough money to afford proper housing. Others have part-time or minimum wage jobs.
Some residents are physically or mentally disabled and cannot work. The remainder are seeking employment.
Kurstin says, “Everybody is looking for an opportunity. Nobody wants to be homeless, this was not by choice.”
Charlotte Kahaloa helps her husband, Kenny, run the Nickelsville kitchen. But she used to be the donations coordinator, distributing blankets, sleeping bags, plywood, and other supplies to the residents at the camp.
“Some of these people need socks. Winter is coming. We are going to need a bunch of coats and sweaters. It’s going to be cold,” she says.
Kahaloa is 60 years old and came from Portland, Ore., where she worked as a caregiver in a retirement home for 20 years. She pulls down her shirt revealing a thick scar that runs from her neck and extends all the way down to her belly. “I had heart surgery three times. I had to go through rehab. I got two mechanical valves. After that, I couldn’t work, so we lost our apartment. We went to Tent City Three, but they wouldn’t take us because of our dogs.” Kahaloa is one of eight or nine women who live at Nickelsville, one of whom has a baby that is only three months old. “We try to get them out of here as fast as we can,” says Kahaloa, “especially with a baby. It’s dangerous to have kids at this site. There is too much glass on the ground.” Kahaloa says that they go to the YWCA to help families with children find homes. “We have a couple of nurses who come out here and they try to help. They usually bring stuff for the kids.” But, given the choice, Kahaloa wouldn’t leave the camp. “I feel safe here. They’ve got women’s shelters, but you can’t bring your spouse. That’s why we come here. Nickelsville doesn’t turn anybody down, provided they follow the rules. You can’t drink or do drugs. No violence or cursing is allowed. That makes it safer. It’s supposed to be safe here.”
Other residents at the camp have a difficult time finding a landlord who will accept their application. “My girlfriend and I have a housing voucher through the Housing and Essential needs program,” says Kurstin. “It’s provided by the Catholic Community Services. It will pay a whole year’s rent, up to $800 per month, including first month, last month, and security deposit. Nobody will rent to us.”
Regardless of the reasons, the lack of affordable housing, low wages, disabilities, or unemployment, it is clear that homelessness is not going to go away.
Currently, the Nickelsville residents feel happy about the move. There is some concern that the business owners in Little Saigon might be apprehensive. “We think we are going to be really good neighbors of the International District,” says Kurstin. He and Gilbert are quick to encourage business owners, city councilmembers, and anyone who is interested to come visit the camp and see first-hand what it is all about. “We are someone’s father, brother, mother, son, aunt, or sister. We are your next door neighbor,” says Kurstin. “Please don’t lose sight of this fact. Just because I am homeless doesn’t mean I am any less of a person.”
Since moving, Nickelsville has made the effort to contribute to the neighborhood. “We love living near the International District,” said Kurstin. “Seven of us went to a ceremony where they dedicated a new Little Saigon sign.” After the event, the campers helped put away the tables, chairs, and microphones. When asked how he felt about living on the edge of the ID, Kurstin smiled and said, “The roast duck is really close. It gets everybody’s mouth watering. I know we can’t afford it, but we like to dream.” (end)
To donate supplies and funding, contact Scott Morrow at 206-450-9136.