Seattle Supports Homeless Camp Putting Down Roots

February 2, 2011

Liz Jones

In Seattle, the city's plans for a permanent homeless camp will get a public hearing Monday evening.

Similar encampments have sprung up in places like Sacramento and Fort Worth, where local officials shut them down.

Seattle wants to take a different approach with a city-run camp on city-owned property.

But the project is criticized for being at odds with the city's own plan to end homelessness.

'There Needs To Be A Place For Them'

On a recent Sunday night, Nickelsville is full to capacity. About 100 of Seattle's more than 8,000 homeless people live here. For now, it's set up at old firehouse in the city's north end, next to a stretch of strip malls. The parking lot is packed with tents.

This camp banded together three years ago and has moved about 17 times since then. The name, Nickelsville, is a jab at Seattle's former mayor Greg Nickels, who tried to have the camp shut down.

Around 6 p.m., people start to wander inside.

"Nickelsville does take pets and children," says Peggy Hotes, one of the camp's organizers. "I think we have around nine dogs and eight cats."

There's a room for people with pets, several sleeping areas, and a big kitchen. Residents cook meals together. On this evening, one of the residents cooked red beans, greens, rice and cornbread.

Residents also share in the camp's management. Hotes thinks residents helping themselves and each other can help people get back on their feet.

"I've seen people come in here with their heads down," she says. "Then they're elected to something. And they see that they can participate in making things better, to help solve the issue of homelessness."

One camper named Michael was recently elected to a leadership spot. He asked NPR not to use his last name because it could hurt his chances with prospective employers. He lost his job as a building engineer last summer then moved here when he couldn't keep up with his rent.

"I want to see people trying to get out of Nickelsville and not in to Nickelsville," he says.

Asked whether that happens enough, he says, "Enough is a hard question. Some people may never get out of Nickelsville, but there needs to be a place for them, too."

Worth A Try

That's a perspective city leaders have recently started to share.

The city has designated a vacant lot where the camp can put down some roots. It's adjacent to the freeway in Seattle's industrial south end.

"Come 5 or 6 o'clock, everybody goes home," says Mike Peringer, who owns a shop nearby and is also president of the neighborhood's business association. "There's no supermarket anywhere, there's no drugstore, there's nothing. We're not anti-homeless camp. The issue is location."

The location, Peringer says, is basically the entrance to the city.

Seattle's Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith admits a permanent tent city is not the ideal response to homelessness. But he thinks it's worth a try.

"No one seems to have come up with a perfect situation or a perfect location to do something like this," he says. "But we don't want excellent — what we're grasping for [is] to keep us from doing something basic that can really help people."

Smith says if the camp is effective, the city could make it permanent. The vision for Nickelsville is often compared to another homeless camp in Portland, Ore., called Dignity Village. It's been around more than a decade.

Nick Fish, who heads the Portland Housing Bureau, calls the camp successful, even though 70 percent of people who leave are still homeless.

"That particular statistic is of some concern," he says. "On the other hand, for the people that are living there today, they have a better place than the street to call home. What I tell people is, 'Look at the big picture.' Dignity Village is a very, very small part of our overall strategy."

The strategy for Nickelsville in Seattle is still taking shape. The city envisions people will stay in tents. But Michael, the building engineer, wants something more permanent. He's building some model houses, about the size of a garden shed, to show the city.

"It's going to be 8-foot tall with a slanted roof," he says. "A door with a lock. I'd like to have a solar panel in it."

It's not a tent. It's a tiny home, built of wood. And however small, to Michael, that means stability until he can figure out what's next. And for others, who might need to move in after he moves on. Copyright 2011 Puget Sound Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.kuow.org.