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A Report from Nickelsville 4/22/20
A virus has changed the world. The most powerful tool against COVID-19 right now is staying at home, but homeless people don’t have homes. The distance between rich and poor has seldom been more visible or painful.
COVID-19 caused the economy to tank and increased the need for shelter.
Since February unemployment claims have risen past the levels of the great recession of the 80s. Not since the Great Depression of the 30s have so many people been in peril of losing their homes.
In King County the average age of death for a homeless person was already 48 years, thirty fewer years than housed people. Tens of thousands are already homeless with the number increasing. King County’s Declaration five years ago of a “homeless state of emergency’ was followed by more – not less – homelessness.
That failure is due in part to many of those in power being neither directly affected by homelessness nor caring that much. Those who passionately want to solve homelessness – and know how - have often been ignored and excluded from decision making. Solving homelessness has too often been left to people accountable to the same rich and powerful folks who have little interest in solving it.
Now the Coronavirus State of Emergency demonstrates what a real – as opposed to a phony – state of emergency can do. It shows us whose self-interest must be at stake to get the resources and actions emergencies require.
COVID-19 can be transmitted easily, by chance encounter, by the asymptomatic, and from strangers. That’s how it’s different from homelessness. Unlike the virus, poor people cannot directly pass on their poverty to the rich. Consequently COVID-19 makes the rich and powerful feel more unsafe and insecure than homelessness does. This is an important reason why the response to the coronavirus substantially differs from the response to homelessness.
Suddenly, hundreds of hotel rooms have become available for already sheltered homeless people. Many new spaces were rapidly set up and staffed to ‘socially distance’ homeless people already sheltered. The homeless services industry is receiving previously unimagined resources. They’ve received rapid authority to move quickly, with little study, data or community notification required.
Another result of the pandemic is that sweeps of homeless encampments by Mayor Durkan’s Navigation Team – sweeps which spread disease, infection and fear throughout the city – have mostly been shelved and replaced by benign neglect. The tens of thousands sleeping outside in King County are not being offered hotel rooms and shelter beds – those are prioritized for people in shelters now deemed unsafe and unhealthy.
Many decision makers have tacitly decided that homeless people sleeping outside are at less risk of spreading the coronavirus to others than those in shelters. Even the Tiny House Villages that Nickelsville pioneered are not being substantially increased in numbers. Those sleeping outside are fending for themselves unless they become infected – then they are quarantined.
Two Ways Nickelsville Can Help:
1. Build and Operate Many New Tiny House Eco Villages
First, we can operate and expand our democratic and self-managed Tiny House Villages. They are positive alternatives to both sweeps and congregate shelters, especially during a viral epidemic.
Nickelsville’s success, though, can inflame homelessphobics. Successful self-help projects devised and operated by homeless people creates too much cognitive dissonance for them. They’ve found allies in politicians who’d rather avoid common sense solutions that democratic Tiny House communities offer.
This is why Nickelsville will always need the support – and reality check – that friends can provide. Right now, that starts with support for the upcoming moves of both Nickelsville Union and Northlake.
Here’s how Kerry, who lives at Nickelsville, put it: “We need this village, especially during the outbreak of coronavirus. Electricity, heat, light and a roof over our heads help. Money is saved from storage rental too. I’m laid off so I need to use the shower and laundry. I can’t go anywhere and it’s better to stay inside the village to use showers and laundry here.”
Rico said he “…needs tiny houses to keep open so I can save money faster w/out debt so I could buy a one bedroom house with land and be able to pay the first down payment. Saving helps a lot while living at Nickelsville. ‘’
Carl “…likes to live in Tiny House to save money to find a place to stay. Apartment houses, condos and other buildings are too high priced and not enough can be saved for our future. I like to keep Nickelsville open to help people get back on their feet. Thanks to all.”
Ion observed that “….at a time when increasing corralling and isolation of homeless people is happening a strong force – like Nickelsville – is needed to keep everyone engaged and part of the ‘greater’ community. Traditional sources of aid are insecure. Confusion abounds in government. Grassroots groups are needed now more than ever for safe communities to reside in. Waves of COVID-19 could appear for years. This ‘new state’ of the world is here for a while – it’s not going away.”
2. Without Vision the People Perish
Secondly, Nickelsville can help design, create and operate homeless services that work. We can speak to the requirements for creating the affordable housing needed to end homelessness.
At this time effective grassroots organizations of homeless people are excluded from such things. Despite excellent operations Nickelsville is also entirely excluded from city and county operational funding. That’s part of the reason why King County has an unhealthy congregate shelter system which now requires dramatic modification.
Instead of respecting grassroots organizations’ concerns homeless service ‘leaders’ and staff spent years on ‘Pathways Home,’ ‘Safe Harbors/HMIS’ and ‘Coordinated Entry.’ These are systems that cost comparatively little, do less, and punish providers who do not get homeless people into affordable housing that doesn’t exist.
With the coronavirus we can see how real emergencies – like both the Coronavirus and Homelessness – should be responded to: With facts, resources, and experts at the table.
Real solutions start with resources. For homelessness that includes taxes from the corporations that most benefited from the widening gap between rich and poor that wiped out King County’s affordable housing stock. Resources must be commensurate with the cost of building and renovating a sufficient amount of affordable housing to move presently homeless people into.
Interim Survival Mechanisms – particularly encampments like Tiny House Villages – must be supported and funded while both affordable housing for the many and ‘supportive’ housing for the few is built to scale.
These are not the only large shifts in community priorities and resources. Nickelsville started in response to Mayor Greg Nickels’ sweeps of homeless encampments. A decade later these sweeps must be stopped for good. They have spread nothing more than misery and disease, and allowed a docile press to ‘blame’ homeless people for the structural poverty which caused massive homelessness.
The last 15 years of failed “Committees to End Homelessness” “10 Year Plans” “States of Emergencies” and “One Tables” relied on leaders of the Homeless Service Industry telling their own funders that they’re on the wrong track. The failure we see today shows why - more than anyone else - grassroots homeless organizations need to be at that table as respected partners.
On Sweeps, Pathways Home, the Head Tax, Rent Control, Taxing Amazon, Winter Moratoriums on Evictions, Safe Harbors and HMIS, calling out Homeless Service Planners twisting of data to obscure the truth, or Tiny Houses and encampments, it is organizations of homeless people that spoke the needed truth to power again and again, while many others stood silent or confused, drinking whatever the Kool Aid of the day might be.
For our County to achieve constructive change, democracy will need to forgo bureaucracy. Leadership across the board must be held accountable to the community, and work directly with grassroots community organizations every step of the way.
Nothing About Us Without Us!