Fighting for housing justice

August 19, 2009

Darrin Hoop reports on the ongoing struggle of residents of two Seattle tent cities for housing justice--and what it would take to end homelessness in the city.

THE DAILY struggle for survival continues for the Seattle residents of Tent City III and Nickelsville. While the homeless population of Tent City III is currently residing in a play field at St. Therese Church in the Madrona neighborhood, the residents of Nickelsville are fighting to stop the Port of Seattle's plans to evict them. Although one eviction hearing was recently canceled, the threat that their home will be shut down remains very real.

Their struggle for safe and permanent housing highlights the backward priorities of capitalism, but it also points a way forward for how things could be different if only housing for everyone was a priority in this world.

I have visited both Tent City III and Nickelsville. When I first visited Tent City III a few months ago, it was located in the parking lot of St. Marks Episcopal Church, literally only a couple blocks away from an extremely wealthy neighborhood with homes that easily top $1 million. While St. Marks has to be commended for allowing Tent City on its property, it is an indictment of the barbaric world we live in to see such fabulous wealth right next to dire poverty.

Jose, a resident of Nickelsville
Jose, a resident of Nickelsville, surrounded by tents

I know they are grateful, but what the residents at Tent City need in terms of long-term solutions is more than just charity in the guise of a parking lot to live in (and they will be the first ones to tell you this). The homes of only one block of mansions in that neighborhood could be opened up and shared to easily accommodate every single person (100 total) at Tent City, and their lack of housing could be solved in one day. Of course, the rich would never do this. Homelessness could easily be solved if the priorities were different.

When I visited Nickelsville recently I was shocked to see the land the residents were being forced to abandon. It was located in an empty lot of dried-out grass and dirt a few miles south of downtown Seattle in the highly toxic industrial area near the Duwamish Canal. It's not even a mile away from Boeing Field where parts and research for billions of dollars worth of military planes and satellites are worked on.

This land Nickelsville was on, which is owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation, has been empty for years. Back in 2000-2001, I was a cover driver for UPS. One of the main routes I covered took me up and down West Marginal Way past this lot every day. It was abandoned back then!

OBVIOUSLY, A couple of the reasons all levels of government don't want to allow any homeless tent cities are that it could set a bad precedent and create space for other homeless folks to follow suit and either move to the existing tent city or to set up their own. Also, officially sanctioning a permanent spot draws bad publicity by highlighting the reality of people not having homes in a city that has some of the richest men in the world in it.

But another possible reason for why the state didn't want Nickelsville on this particular plot of land was raised by Gerry Condon, a Veterans for Peace Chapter 92 organizer, in a part of an interview he did with Leela Yellesetty of He pointed out that this site was one of many possible locations that the city of Seattle has looked into purchasing to build the new $200 million jail it is attempting to build.

Luckily, for now, that project is on hold. The city still wants to build a jail, but the money hasn't been allocated and a site hasn't been finalized. This is no doubt due to pressure put on the city by the excellent organizing of activists with Real Change (the must-read homeless newspaper in Seattle), other community organizations and the dozens, if not hundreds, of people who helped to collect thousands of signatures on a petition against the jail.

What would it cost to eliminate homelessness in Seattle and throughout King County?

The National Low Income Housing Coalition released a study this year: "Out of Reach 2009." It mentions a "housing wage." According to the study:

It represents the full-time hourly wage one would need to earn in order to pay what HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) estimates to be the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for an apartment, spending no more than 30 percent of income on housing costs...A household must earn the equivalent of $37,105 in annual income to afford the national average two-bedroom FMR of $928 per month. Assuming full-time, year round employment, this translates into a national Housing Wage of $17.84 in 2009...there is no county in the U.S. where even a one-bedroom unit at the FMR is affordable to someone working full-time at the minimum wage.

The housing wage in Seattle is $21.78 or what would equal about $45,000 a year in salary.

According to the King County Committee to End Homelessness, there were 8,439 people counted as homeless in the county on a one-night count on January 25, 2009. The group acknowledges there were likely hundreds, if not a thousand or more, others who weren't counted. If you rounded the number up to 10,000 and multiplied it by $45,000, which would allow each homeless person to own a two-bedroom apartment at the county average FMR of $1,133 a month, it would cost approximately $453,024,000 to eliminate homelessness in King County and allow each person to afford a decent standard of living beyond housing costs.

Seattle has more than enough money to eliminate homelessness if the priorities were different. The $200 million the city hopes to find to build a new jail would be a good start. There was no problem finding $1 billion of public money to build the new Seattle Mariners and Seahawks stadiums in the recent past.

Beyond that, King County is the fourth-wealthiest county per capita in the U.S. According to's "The World's Billionaires 2009," three of the top 32 richest people on the planet live in the Seattle area (all hail from Microsoft): Bill Gates (#1 at $40 billion a year) Steve Ballmer (#29 at $11 billion) and Paul Allen (#32 at $10.5 billion). A progressive income tax on a tiny fraction of their wealth alone could cover the bill. Think of how much more could be raised by taxing the rest of the rich in this county?

A PARKING lot or an abandoned lot for a home may be a starting point for the residents of Tent City III or Nickelsville, but it isn't close to what they and every homeless person in Seattle, King County and around the U.S. deserve.

They need affordable, permanent homes with good living-wage jobs (which there aren't enough of) with access to proper health care and retirement plans that won't be destroyed by greedy corporations. Better availability of programs like job training or more access to education or to social services to help with disabilities and cheaper, more efficient mass transit would all be extremely helpful.

The desire for the residents of Tent City III and Nickelsville to live a better life should be an inspiration to us all. But it will take a fierce struggle to change things. Those living in Nickelsville are still battling the Port of Seattle to stay in its current location.

Meanwhile, Tent City III's stay at St. Therese Church will end on August 22. The University of Washington (UW) administration turned down a request to allow the residents to live for a while on campus, despite the fact both the student governments and the faculty senate passed unanimous motions in favor of it. Maybe it's because the millions in dollars of budget cuts that the administration is shoving down the throats of students and staff on campus and the resultant dozens, if not hundreds, of jobs lost could lead to workers at the UW being forced into the very tent city that could have been set up on campus. That possibility is clearly too embarrassing for the administration.

Now, Tent City III's next "home" will be All Saints Church in the South Park neighborhood--where it will be allowed to stay until October 24.

On August 15, I met Alvin and Milo (a human in canine form) at Tent City. Milo is Alvin's service dog to help him with his epilepsy. Alvin has been homeless since he hit rock bottom on April 9, 2008. Due to drug and alcohol abuse, he lost his mother and then his home. He weighed 120 pounds at the time. After four weeks of living in Tent City, he weighed 166 pounds.

Alvin summed up the importance of Tent City in his life:

It meant I'm not riding buses. I'm clean. I have clean clothes. It's like a mobile tent. Urban camping in the city. My goal is to get a place by December. First I'm going to buy cooking pans. Then a mattress. Everything is here. Food, safety and good friends.

The money could be found to provide Alvin, Milo and the rest of the residents of Tent City III and Nickelsville with proper homes right now, but unfortunately the struggle to obtain that will continue for the foreseeable future.

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