Homeless encampment fights to survive

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In the U.S., 600,000 children and teenagers are without a place to call home.

But most of them don’t count with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which now defines as homeless only those totally without shelter. This disappears the larger number of people who find emergency housing on friends’ couches or in motels.

Still, that leaves more than 670,000 people surviving on the streets, in greenbelts, or in shelters. And, with 10,000 home foreclosures a week and joblessness at a 14-year high, the problem is ballooning.

As the crisis grows, many without housing are creating their own solution: organized tent cities.

Out of the shadows. New Hoovervilles dot the map, from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Ore. The camps provide safety and opportunities that shelters don’t. An example is the chance to hold down a job with late hours: the check-in and checkout times of most shelters prevent this.

Some municipalities are hostile, while others even support the camps financially. In Seattle, people without housing are up against a Democratic mayor who, like HUD, is determined to keep the homeless as invisible as possible.

In 2002, the year that Greg Nickels became mayor, the homeless organizations SHARE and WHEEL won a consent decree with the city that permits one encampment at a time, rotating among locations. This was an important victory, but not the answer for a homeless population estimated by January 2008 to be nearly 8,500 people — thousands more than Seattle’s shelters can handle.

Meanwhile, Seattle was sporting a development orgy. As condos and stadiums proliferated, low-income housing evaporated: 3,511 units lost since 2005.

Since Nickels took office, he has added less than 100 ongoing shelter beds. But he has kept police busy destroying camps and chasing the homeless from place to place, endangering their survival.

In spring 2008, a group of homeless people said enough. They began planning for a self-governed camp on a fixed site, with structures and services, able to support up to a thousand people.

They called their goal Nickelsville, and themselves Nickelodeons. They found a sponsor, a chapter of Veterans for Peace.

On Sept. 10, they delivered a letter to the mayor asking him to provide land. They got no response. During the predawn hours of Sept. 22, they made Nickelsville blossom, setting up dozens of donated bright pink tents on an unused city field.

Many Nickelodeons will tell you they’re not looking for a battle, just a secure place to sleep. In the words of Aaron Beaucage, “I don’t want to fight the mayor. I don’t care about him any more than he cares about me.” Nevertheless, a fight is what they’ve got.

After being ordered to leave, the Nickelodeons, numbering about 100, got word that the police would raid the camp on Sept. 26. They notified supporters, many of whom rallied to the site, along with a blizzard of media.

Twenty-five campers and allies refused to leave when the police closed in, and were arrested for trespassing, handcuffed, taken to the nearest precinct, and then released. Participating for Radical Women, this writer was among them, along with my colleague Steve Hoffman of the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP).

Defending the right to exist. But Nickelsville lives on. A series of hosts, each bullied by the mayor, have provided it with temporary space while Nickelodeons seek a permanent venue. At this writing, Nickelsville exists as a community of 85 adults, two children, and one big brown dog in the parking lot of University Christian Church in a busy college neighborhood. Despite threats of fines from the mayor, the sympathetic church has hung tough for weeks, but will only be able to host the camp for a short while longer.

Speaking at a recent FSP meeting, a Nickelodeon named Gina summed up what Nickelsville means to her, saying simply: “We’re family.”

This family needs friends. Get involved: tell Mayor Nickels (206-684-4000, greg.nickels@seattle.gov) to ask the city attorney to drop the trespassing charges. Urge him to stop harassing his namesakes and instead cooperate with them in their valiant effort to help solve a crucial city problem. You’ll be in good company, joining appeals by the Washington Federation of State Employees Local 304, which is arrestee Hoffman’s union, and many others.

If you live in the Seattle area, check out www.nickelsvilleseattle.org to find out about needed supplies. And plan to attend a pretrial hearing on Dec. 11; email fs_staff@igc.org for schedule updates.

The defendants have pled not guilty and are eager for a day in court. According to more honest sources than HUD, 3.5 million people are homeless in the U.S. for part or all of the year. Meanwhile, as of a year ago, 17.4 million houses were standing vacant. In truth, who are the criminals?

Stop the foreclosures, expand affordable housing, end homelessness now!

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