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Tent city becomes home in tough times

  • Story Highlights
  • Tent city in Seattle, Washington, houses 50 to 100 people
  • Residents say they formed tent city because of dissatisfaction with shelters
  • "We don't just take in everybody," resident says
  • Nearby homeowner says of tent city dwellers: "That could be us one day"
  • Next Article in Living »
By Patrick Oppmann
CNN
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SEATTLE, Washington (CNN) -- The homeless men and women shuffle across the frozen ground of the tent camp and surround a steel drum burning wood. They use the flames to cook food and to stay warm.

Some of the residents of Nickelsville say they never thought they'd find themselves homeless.

The tents in Seattle are covered with tarps and plastic sheets to help keep out the elements.

The tents they live in are small, covered by tarps and plastic sheeting to keep water out. Several tents are collapsed under the weight of a recent snowfall.

For Bruce Beavers, however, this camp is just about the best place in the world he could be living right now.

"This is a place for people who lose their jobs, lose their houses, to have some kind of structure and for them to get back out in the world," he says.

Set up in the parking lot of a church near Seattle, Washington, the camp houses anywhere from 50 to 100 homeless people each day.

Residents call it Nickelsville. The name takes a page from the infamous "Hooverville" shantytowns of the Great Depression that were named for a president many thought did not care about their economic hardships. Video Watch resident give tour, explain rules »

Some residents here say they blame Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and a system they believe makes it difficult to escape homelessness.

"In shelters, if you don't get there in time enough, you don't have your bed no more 'cause there are so many people trying to rush in to get it," Beavers says. "Got a lotta people losing their homes. You don't want to go all the way to the bottom. Nickelsville is kind of a catch in between."

Like many of the other Nickelodeons -- as the people who share this church parking lot call themselves -- Bruce Beavers never expected to be homeless. He managed warehouses and hardware stores, had a 401(k) plan and owned his home. But Beavers said he lived beyond his means and eventually lost everything.

Beavers and other homeless say they were tired of a shelter system that often splits up families into different housing, does not provide a place for people to keep their possessions while they look for work and offers too few beds. So they say they decided to try their own way.

They formed a camp where the homeless living there would know they had a guaranteed place to stay. There would be around-the-clock security to keep people from having their things stolen, the tents would be built from donated materials, and alcohol and drugs would not be permitted. It would be a place for people trying to get out of homelessness.

Evan Balverde is a plumber who came to Nickelsville after an accident forced him to stop working.

"We don't just take in everybody," Balverde says. "We'd like to, but the thing is just a lot of these people out here are mentally incapable or they're drug addicts or alcoholics and stuff, and that's why they are on the streets. We don't put up with that.

"We're here for people in rough times and homeless, but if you are doing it to yourself, then this isn't the place for you."

The dubious legality of the camp set the organizers on a collision course with the city, and several times police have moved the Nickelodeons off the land on which they were squatting. An invitation to relocate the camp outside a local church gave Nickelsville a reprieve, at least for the time being.

Johnny Turner, a homeless man who helped found the camp, says he would like to see Nickelsville grow into a permanent shelter that could accept more people needing a place to go.

"We need more Nickelsvilles," he says. "There's nowhere else." Photo See photos of Depression-era tent cities »

Al Poole of the Seattle Human Services Department says the city spends nearly $8 million a year on the homeless. Still, there aren't always beds available for every person needing one, and sometimes families do need to be placed in different shelters.

While tent cities might fulfill an immediate need, Poole explains, they also can have the negative effect of turning people who live near the camps against the homeless.

Walking around the neighborhood that borders Nickelsville, it is hard to imagine that many residents are happy that their homes now face a homeless camp.

And many residents were upset, says homeowner Roland Bradley, when the camp first arrived at their street.

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"We had a meeting at the church the week before they came," Bradley says. "One of the concerns that people had was about crime and people breaking into their home and children being molested and noise. But that hasn't happened."

Motioning to the camp, Bradley adds: "The reality is that could be us one day."

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