Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

current issue

June – July 2024 : Reflections READ ONLINE


Tent city recognised in Seattle

March 09 2011
Nickelsville‘s 100 residents to get a permanent home

As the US still reels from its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, tent cities continue to spring up across the country - serving as a sobering reminder of the fragility of the 'American dream'. Regarded by many lawmakers as dangerous, disease-spreading ghettos, hundreds of camps have been shut down, including those in Sacramento and Fort Worth. Following closure, the million-plus inhabitants of these makeshift cities are simply moved on, while only the very lucky one are rehoused.

But the Washington city of Seattle is taking a different and more forward-thinking approach by planning to run its own homeless camp on state-owned property.

Homelessness has risen sharply in America in recent years as a result of rising unemployment and home foreclosures. Almost half of the country's 3.5m homeless are unsheltered, with a large number congregating in tent cities for safety. In Seattle alone, there are around 8,000 homeless people and around 1,000 of these live in encampments.

One of these sites is dubbed Nickelsville, after former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, who came under fire his harsh policies towards homelessness. It has around 100 residents and was set up at a former fire station around three years ago but has since then been forced to move 17 times. The city is now taking steps to establish a permanent home for Nickelsville in a vacant car park, and awaits the result of an environmental impact report due in February.

Seattle's Deputy Mayor, Darryl Smith, admits that a permanent tent city is not the ideal response to homelessness. But he thinks it's worth a try. Mr Smith says: "No one seems to have come up with a perfect situation or a perfect location to do something like this. But we don't want excellent — what we're grasping for is something basic that can really help people." What's more, he says if the camp is effective, the city could make it a permanent fixture at a annual cost of less than $1million.

Nickelsville has a list of rules that are largely self-enforced. For instance, no drugs, alcohol or criminal activity is tolerated within the tent city and offenders risk immediate eviction.

Inside the camp, residents eat together and share in the running of the site, which camp organiser Peggy Hotes believes has helped people get back on their feet. She explains: "I've seen people come in here with their heads down. Then they're elected to something. And they see that they can participate in making things better, to help solve the issue of homelessness."

The vision for Nickelsville is often compared to another homeless camp in Portland, Oregon, called Dignity Village, which has been around more than a decade.

Seattle has grappled with tent cities for decades. In 2002, a group was given permission to run a homeless encampment within city limits under certain conditions - including a maximum three months at any one site. Tent cities - reminiscent of the 'Hoovervilles' of the 1930s Great Depression - are basic, with no mains electricity, plumbing or drainage.

In Reno, Nevada, the state with the nation's highest repossessions rate, a tent city recently sprung up on the city's outskirts and quickly filled up with about 150 people. Most tent cities are in California, where more than 200 people can be found living in Sacramento's Tent City, which became infamous after appearing on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Although this site is currently under threat of closure, the rise in homelessness in the US means that others will no doubt spring up elsewhere.