By Erica C. Barnett
Earlier this year, as the city prepared to sweep a small encampment in the University District where a man had recently been shot, residents and businesses in the area rallied around an idea that seemed to address one of the fundamental flaws with the city’s encampment policy: Instead of simply clearing out Olga Park and forcing everyone to leave, why not give encampment residents first dibs on a tiny house village that was expected to open nearby in about a month?
The idea would have solved two related problems. Neighbors complained that the encampment was particularly disruptive—before the shooting, there were many reports of fights, fires, and threats—and, at the same time, encampment residents couldn’t exactly pick up stakes and go inside. “My spiel [to the city] was, ‘If you guys are going to put tiny house villages in neighborhoods, it would show the benefit of having a tiny house village if it was for people in that neighborhood,” said David Delgado, the University District neighborhood care coordinator for the outreach group REACH.
Just over half of the referrals to Rosie’s Village—about 20—will come from the surrounding area; the rest will reportedly come from upcoming encampment sweeps in Lower Woodland Park and the Ballard Commons.
Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who represents the U District, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Low Income Housing Institute’s tiny house village at NE 45th and Roosevelt Way NE, known as Rosie’s Village, in part because it could provide a shelter option for unhoused people in the area while addressing neighborhood and business concerns about trash, needles, and other issues related to the unsheltered population.
Although neither Pedersen nor his staff responded to our requests for an interview, Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, praised Pedersen for being “so pushy and so organized” in getting a tiny house village in his district.
“A big part of his motivation is he wants it to be a resource for his district,” Lewis said. “Generally speaking, as we’re going to have six new villages coming online, I would like to see if we can have dedicated referrals that concentrate on the neighborhood where the village is sited.”
Ultimately, the city swept Olga Park and encampment residents were scattered throughout the city. Some stayed in the U District, moving to spots near I-5 and other parts of Ravenna Park, while others moved to places like Lower Woodland Park. Rosie’s Village, which the city says can accommodate about 50 people, finally started taking referrals from the city’s HOPE team, which coordinates shelter referrals prior to encampment removals, this week. According LIHI director Sharon Lee, just over half of the referrals to Rosie’s Village—about 20—will come from the surrounding area; the rest reportedly will come from upcoming encampment sweeps in Lower Woodland Park and the Ballard Commons.
Kevin Mundt, a spokesman for HSD, said that “while the expectation was that a number of referrals from the vicinity would be made to Rosie’s Tiny House Village, the City never intended, or communicated, that the Village would only accept referrals from people experiencing homelessness in the University District.” Earlier this year, he added, the city moved people living unsheltered in the University District to hotels and shelters in other neighborhoods, including the Executive Pacific Hotel shelter, also operated by LIHI, downtown.
Although Lee says LIHI understood that the city couldn’t guarantee beds at Rosie’s for people living in the area, neighborhood residents bought into the idea on the belief that most if not all of its residents would be people from the neighborhood. “We are supportive of serving the priority population that’s in the neighborhood, and we’re hoping that there will be changes to the HOPE team with the new mayor” who will be elected next month, Lee said.
Don Blakeney, president of the University District Partnership, a local business group, said he understands why the city, which has few places for unsheltered people to go, might decide to relocate unsheltered people from other neighborhoods into the new village. “Ideally, folks from the University District who are unhoused would get an opportunity to live in this tiny house village, but I know the city is balancing a lot of priorities and there’s not a tiny house village in every neighborhood or every council district” to serve people living there, Blakeney said. “On the flip side, people from the U District have been able to move into other tiny house villages elsewhere.”
Seattle does not have enough shelter, much less housing, for even a fraction of its thousands of unsheltered residents; on a typical night, there are only a handful of available shelter beds. The number of beds available to the general population is reduced further by the fact that about a third of all shelter beds are reserved exclusively for the HOPE team to offer people whose encampments the city is about to sweep—a situation that a perverse incentive for people to move to encampments on the city’s “priority list” because it’s the best shot they have at actually getting a desirable shelter bed.
Lewis, who has proposed building 12 new tiny house villages around the city, believes Seattle will eventually have enough tiny house villages that each one can mostly serve the surrounding neighborhood. “Maybe we do need to revisit the idea of increasing the number of villages and having they be dedicated” to surrounding geographic area,” he said. Starting next year, however, the city will relinquish much of its control over resources for people experiencing homelessness, when the new regional homelessness authority takes over almost all of the city’s contracts for homeless services.
The authority’s CEO, Marc Dones, has expressed skepticism about “proliferating” tiny house villages, arguing that they are less effective than other shelter options at moving people into permanent housing.