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A 21st Century Hooverville: Seattle’s Homeless Population Builds “Nickelsville,” a Tent City Named After the City’s Mayor

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As the nation’s economic and housing crisis worsens, homelessness is also on the rise, and an increasing number of people are setting up roving encampments or shanty towns that are popularly known as tent cities. Seattle’s newest tent city is called Nickelsville. The encampment is made up of over 100 fuchsia tents and is named to protest Mayor Greg Nickels’s policies toward the homeless. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As the nation’s economic and housing crisis worsens, homelessness is also on the rise. A report from the National Center for Family Homelessness estimates that one in fifty American children are now homeless. With the number of homeless people far exceeding the existing network of shelters, an increasing number of people are setting up roving encampments or shanty towns that are popularly known as tent cities.

AMY GOODMAN: And right here in Seattle, tent cities have been around since the late ’90s, have also served as centers for organizing around affordable housing and services for the homeless. Seattle’s newest tent city is called Nickelsville. The encampment is made up of over a hundred pink tents and is named to protest the Mayor Greg Nickels’s policies around the homeless.

I’m joined here in Seattle by two people: Bruce Beavers, who lives in Nickelsville, and Anitra Freeman. She is formerly homeless. She is with the homeless organizing groups in Seattle.

And we welcome you both to Democracy Now!



AMY GOODMAN: Bruce, when did you start living at Nickelsville, and why name it for the mayor?

BRUCE BEAVERS: Well, I started living in Nickelsville on September the 25th. Why we named it Nickelsville, after the mayor, because the mayor actually single-handedly have actually — he didn’t start homelessness, but he’s actually single-handedly trying to drive homeless out of Seattle.

AMY GOODMAN: In what way?

BRUCE BEAVERS: Well, he continuously to disrupt Nickelsville. He has thrown us off a piece of property that we actually found that would have been just perfect for Nickelsville to actually build their houses and sustain a nice place to live. He actually drove us off. He arrested twenty-five people. He continuously to threaten our hopes of giving us any kind of help. You know, so he’s really, really just been a [inaudible].


ANITRA FREEMAN: He’s harassing all of the encampments. There are thousands of people who are outside. The shelters have been inadequate for years. There’s never been enough shelter for everybody. There are thousands of people outside, people camping. And instead of helping the people who are trying to survive outside, Nickels single-handedly started a program of harassing them, of chasing people out of encampments and actually destroying their camping gear. And he set up one showcase shelter for fifty people that costs $500 million — no, half-a-million dollars a year, and while this network of self-managed shelters that the homeless organizing group does can shelter 500 people a night for the same amount of money.

AMY GOODMAN: My colleague in New York, Juan Gonzalez, wants to ask you a question. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. Bruce Beavers, if you could share with our audience, what happened with you in your particular situation that you ended up homeless and how you got involved more as an activist?

BRUCE BEAVERS: Well, I used to — from ’95 to 2005, I actually worked at a company called Acme Food Sales. It’s an import/export company of canned goods. It’s right here in Seattle off First Avenue. I was there for quite awhile. I became the warehouse manager there.

Once me and Acme kind of broke up and went our separate ways, that was a big salary I had. I tried to actually complement the salary by working at Dollar Tree, assistant manager at Dollar Tree, in Federal Way for about a year. And then, that didn’t makes the money, and I went to [inaudible].

My bills was constantly adding up. I went — my house would wind up going into foreclosure about the end of 2003. So, by 2007, all of my bills was coming so far over my head I couldn’t afford it. And by 2008, I actually lost the house and everything else.

I was actually — I met a young lady, and she actually talked about going to Nickelsville. And we actually went to Nickelsville, and Nickelsville actually saved my life, actually. It took us off the street. We were sleeping in alleyways, anywhere we could sleep, waterfront. We would be woken up at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and say we couldn’t sleep there. You know, we’re getting soaking wet. It was cold. Nickelsville actually gave us a pink tent, gave us a pink tent. And from there, we kind of realized that Nickelsville was a lifesaver. It saved our life. And we have been involved in Nickelsville ever since.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Anitra Freeman, I’d like to ask you — my understanding is that Nickelsville has had several locations, as it’s been harassed, and it ended up where? In a church parking lot at the present time?

ANITRA FREEMAN: Yes. Churches have a lot more freedom to host tent cities, places like Nickelsville, because there’s legally a very limited amount of authority that the government has over what the Church does with their property. They can ask for minimum — for the least intrusive possible health and safety requirements, and otherwise, they’ve got to get their hands off. So churches find it very easy to host the tent cities, whereas private citizens can be — are much more vulnerable to harassment.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel like the situation is getting much worse here in Seattle?

ANITRA FREEMAN: Oh, it is. Definitely. But, you know, there have been great amounts of homeless people for at least twenty years. People have been dying on the street for twenty years. The homeless women’s group that I work with stands a vigil, women in black, whenever somebody homeless dies outside or by violence in King County. We started in 2000, and we’ve stood vigil for 330 people since then. Eleven just this year. This has been going on for a long time, and it is getting worse.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what do you see, Anitra Freeman, as the advantages of these tent cities versus the established city-run shelters that exist not only in Seattle but in many parts of the country?

ANITRA FREEMAN: Well, the main thing is there’s not enough shelter. There are people outside. The tent cities and Nickelsville allow people to come together and support each other, and they’re much safer in a group, and they can organize more resources. And, you know, Bruce can tell you, you have a space of your own. You can leave your things behind, not carry them around all day. You can be with your family, with your couple. You can actually have a community and things that you can do to contribute. It’s a greater amount of human dignity for people. But basically, basically, you have — you have a port-o-potty, and you have dumpsters, and you have survival, much better survival chances than you do out there alone.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see yourself, finally, Bruce, getting a home at some point soon?

BRUCE BEAVERS: Yes. Like I said, Nickelsville is a place where people that have been up in the world and had something — once you lose something, you know, Nickelsville catches you in between. It doesn’t let you go all the way down. Like I had to come from up. Most folks just losing their places now can come to a place like Nickelsville and leave their stuff, like she was saying, like that you can go out and live a normal life. You can interact in the neighborhood, interact with the jobs. You know, you can take showers. You get your self-esteem back. Me, myself —- me and my wife now, we’re actually saving. Nickelsville has given us the opportunity to get back on our feet. Even once I leave Nickelsville, if [inaudible], I will actually still be a Nickelodean. I will still participate in what Nickelsville have to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bruce and -—

ANITRA FREEMAN: Over the years, I’ve seen much — a higher rate of people getting back on their feet out of the tent cities than out of the shelters.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Anitra Freeman was homeless, continues to be a homeless activist. And Bruce Beavers currently lives in Nickelsville. As you hear, they are called Nickelodeans.

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