Saturday, August 11, 2018

Just Housing, Homeless Camp Residents Organize

Above: Michelle, a former medical assistant, lives at the Nickerson encampment for the houseless off Eastside Street in Olympia. She has gastroparesis, a digestive system disorder, and other chronic illnesses. 

By Invitation, Little Hollywood Visits Nickerson Camp

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

“I had two closets full of shoes!” Michelle laughed, but then paused. “It almost makes me want to cry,” she added.

Michelle, a former medical assistant, has lived at the Nickerson homeless encampment, a wooded, 2.5-acre property located on Wheeler Avenue off Eastside Street in Olympia, for about three months.

She has always worked, and is waiting for her Social Security disability benefits to start.

From Pierce County, Michelle became homeless after a divorce, but says she is healthier now in spirit than she was while married.

Her decline into chronic illness began after colon surgery in August, 2014. She has gastroparesis, a digestive disorder in which the stomach cannot empty itself of food in a normal fashion.

Then she suffered her first heart attack in July, 2015.

She needs regular colostomy supplies but has no address for them to be delivered. Instead, she uses sanitary pads as a heavy duty, makeshift bandage for her stomach so she doesn’t soil herself. She is in pain, which perpetuates vomiting.

“I’m used to being the one who takes care of others, but I’m resourceful,” she says. “I grew up on a farm in Lewis County.” 

Michelle is just one of nine residents at the Nickerson Camp who has a story, illustrating how easy it is to slip into a life of homelessness and lose access to the everyday conveniences of modern life.

Above: A meal of ravioli at the Nickerson Camp.

Nickerson Camp History

The city recently bought the Nickerson encampment area for use as a future park.

Camp residents were served a 72 hour notice of eviction on July 12. The area has been a homeless encampment for many years, but this was the first time this specific property had been served with such a notice.

Last month, Olympia city council members put off the eviction until further notice.

It was the same evening the council declared homelessness a public health emergency and the optics didn’t look good to take action on both actions on the same night.

Then, on July 24, the city announced the proposed locations of two city sanctioned sites for the homeless. A council finance committee met July 31 to discuss financing options for those sites and other homeless response efforts.

Councilmembers will hold a study session on August 21 to discuss those financing options, which include current operating and capital budget monies, and the possible use of Home Fund sales tax dollars, parks funds, and emergency reserves from the city’s operating budget.

City manager Steve Hall says the Nickerson site is not an ideal site for a permanent camp due to the environmental sensitivity of the area. In reality, hundreds of Olympia residents are living in wooded areas around Thurston County and all of them are environmentally sensitive.

Residents of the Nickerson Camp are interested in being part of the solution.

Prior to the eviction notice being served, they had collected numerous bags of trash to take off the property. The bags have been removed by members of Just Housing, an all volunteer advocacy organization, without the assistance of the city. 

With boots-on-the-ground, the group works directly with the homeless on daily and long-term solutions to local homelessness issues and urges councilmembers to adopt realistic, cost-effective approaches to managing the city’s unhoused residents.

Above: Tye Gundel of Just Housing takes a call while sitting at the Woodland Trail trailhead near the Nickerson Camp. 

Tye Gundel of Just Housing visits the Nickerson camp and other homeless encampments several times a week. She not only listens to residents, she washes their laundry at laundromats, brings needed supplies, and facilitates communication among residents, councilmembers, the faith community, and other community social service providers.

“City staff and councilmembers are gradually taking steps to embrace some of our ideas,” Gundel said diplomatically this week.

Gundel has suggested numerous goals, policies and procedures regarding local homelessness since the group started its work advocating for open 24/7 restrooms in November 2016.

Recently, the group created several half-inch binders, one for each city councilmember and some for staff, chock full of solid local research and practical strategies. Gundel gave them to councilmembers prior to their July 24 study session on homelessness.

For example, Just Housing provides suggestions for regulating camping rather than imposing an outright ban.

One approach includes a “shelter-in-place” plan to working with existing encampments, in addition to the creation of alternative legal and safe encampments, like the two recently proposed emergency housing locations.

People will camp even if it is banned, because some people have no other choice, says Gundel.

The study session fell flat, as Just Housing and other community social service providers were not offered a seat at the table and the material did not appear to be used.

Now, as the days inch toward cold weather months, councilmembers are increasingly interested in making sure community partners and social service providers are included in future conversations.

In the meantime, Gundel will continue her efforts.

“I have had some great meetings with folks about structure and organizing the camp. 
We are also continuing to look for a partner for a camp. So far, two churches are interested. Our next step is to arrange a meeting with some representatives from the churches, the city, the camp, and some of our folks to go through more of the details of how we should move forward,” said Gundel this week.

Nickerson Camp Residents Speak to Little Hollywood

Above: Micky Nelson, 34, a resident of the Nickerson Camp, has twice addressed Olympia city council members during public comment time, and has ideas for organizing the camp.

Little Hollywood visited the Nickerson Camp property, by invitation, with Gundel in late July and last week.

Many residents of homeless encampments do not want to or cannot live in an enclosed shelter or camp-like environment.

Mickey Nelson, 34, moved from Texas to Washington State in 2009. He and his girlfriend, Jackie Taylor, 39, have lived at the Nickerson Camp since January, making them the longest, consecutive resident campers on the property.

Nelson is a jack-of-all-trades and has worked in construction, remodeling, steel fabrication, welding, auto body, detailing, lawn care, dog services, and cook.

Nelson has back issues which began with a motorcycle accident, then a car accident, in which he was a passenger, three months later. He is on state disability and is reapplying for Social Security. He says he has a long standing mental health history and is a participant of Capital Recovery Center programs. 

Capital Recovery Center is a community nonprofit, peer-supported agency that has special programs such as Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness (PATH), a point of contact for adults experiencing homelessness who also suffer from mental illness.

Nelson says the camp is on good terms with its housed neighbors, and one neighbor brought them trash bags. He credits Taylor for cleaning up the camp, almost single-handedly. Trash is gradually taken off the property by individuals with Just Housing, without the assistance of the city.

“Evicting us off the property would push us back into downtown, or on other city property,” he said. “Since we have been here, foot traffic and noise has gone down. It’s a safe place for the sick, youth, pregnant women, and domestic violence victims.

“We are looking to be a camp that has a positive impact on society. Not all of us have the desire to live indoors because we’ve been homeless for so long. We have to do the best we can with the best we have.”

Nelson hopes to start a nonprofit whose mission it would be to purchase property for homeless people to camp on and use as a safe place.

He is co-director of InReach, an organization organized by the homeless community. In collaboration with James Joy of The Jungle, Olympia’s largest homeless encampment of about 200 residents, Nelson is creating a practical survival guide for the houseless. The guide would be updated every six months.

“I’ve done so many bad things in my life as a kid. Doing this is my way of atoning for the people I can’t ask forgiveness from, for whatever reason. I’m making it up to the universe,” he said. Nelson has an eight year old son and a 21 year old cousin living elsewhere.

“I want this world to be better than mine was,” he said.

Jackie Taylor, sitting nearby, was born and raised in Olympia, and patiently waited to tell her story. 

To relieve her stress and anxiety, she likes to bicycle at night.

“I don’t do daytime. I can’t be around traffic and people,” she says.

She says the state department of social and health services provides outdated information, such as telling women who are homeless to go to Bread and Roses, a former shelter for women that has been closed for years.

It is her goal to create a donation supply drop off center at the Nickerson Camp, similar to the one at The Jungle.

She also wants a more organized camp. All the area camps are currently self-managed through peer-support but Taylor wants the city’s support in establishing a resident list and process for approving people as new residents.

Taylor brainstormed a Nickerson resident code of conduct and her wish list for the camp: it must be clean and sober, no theft, no bullying, and no violence. She would appreciate it if the city would provide the camp a small dumpster and a porta-potty with a sink.

“This is my safe haven – a small community where people follow the rules and help out. I don’t want the city to spend a lot of money,” said Taylor.

Taylor says the Just Housing organization has been supportive of their work. “You couldn’t ask for anyone better,” she said.

Little Hollywood often writes about homelessness issues, and unsheltered, street dependent individuals. For more information about these issues, go to Little Hollywood and use the search button to type in key words.

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