5 Horrifying Things You Learn Living In A Homeless Tent City
The phrase "homeless shantytown" isn't often -- if ever -- used as a positive description ("You'll love this resort, honey; it has a homeless shantytown feel to it!"). But if you take the time to really think about it, living in a town built with garbage and tents would still beat the hell out of living on the street, alone.
In the city of Seattle, homeless tent cities are self-organized, legal entities run by the homeless, for the homeless. That sounded really strange, and kind of like it might be a post-apocalyptic nightmare run by a warlord wearing a helmet made of dog skulls. So Cracked decided to drop by and ask the residents what it's like. We found that ...
The Homeless Form Their Own Makeshift Democracy
On an average night in America 578,424 people are homeless (you know, give or take). Some of them are young addicts who got kicked out of the house by Mom and Dad, others are lifelong hobos living off the land. Shelters can house only a small number of them, and that's where the homeless tent cities come into play. In Seattle, two such settlements of up to a hundred homeless folks are operated by an organization called Share/Wheel. They just look like a much cleaner Bonnaroo ...
Better smelling too.
... but then there's Nickelsville, an independent tent city with a little more style:
So, less "hippie campout" and more "apartment with a realllllyyy open floor plan."
Oh, and a fence. We'll get to the importance of that in a moment:
Let's just say there's a lot more to it than just supporting that friendly looking picket gate.
We met up with some former Nickelsville residents, who call themselves "Nickelodeons" (really). The residents "pay" for their stay with work around the camp -- three four-hour security shifts per week and one four-hour clean-up shift per month. Depending on whom you ask, the system is either a well-oiled machine or barely works (leaders we talked to say between 50 percent and 90 percent of residents did their hours without having to be hassled, which is probably better luck than you had with, say, your last college group project).
Though, in fairness, failing remedial psychology wouldn't result
in your group living under an overpass.
Still, our first sight of Nickelsville was not an inspiring one: The security guard on duty informed us he was now acting head of security, because the previous HOS had quit last night in an unexplained fury.
Camp "government" consists of said HOS, the arbitrator (who manages internal kerfuffles), and the external affairs coordinator (who solicits donations, deals with The Man, etc.). These are elected positions, and they run the camp.
Which, despite that they're for leadership of a penniless tent city,
will probably still be the most civil elections in the country.
That might sound like the tent city exists as an island under its own laws ... and, well, it sort of does. The local police tend to leave the tent cities alone, in some cases refusing to go inside, because, to quote a source in Nickelsville quoting a cop, "If we evicted one of you, we'd have to evict all of you." In lieu of braving the shank-forest that they assume a homeless camp must be, the police tend to let the tent city's elected officials deal with matters themselves. So, the camps wind up in a kind of limbo where the city doesn't grant explicit permission to operate but also doesn't make an effort to shut them down. For a while, anyway.
For what it's worth, the Nickelsville HOS and external affairs coordinator we met were both super confident, friendly, and not at all shady. They ran a clean, safe, organized camp, filled with well-maintained, permanent structures, like this:
The address takes up the entire front side of an envelope.
But let's not pretend that several dozen destitute addicts will spontaneously form a utopia. For instance, several former Nickelodeons spoke of an infamous coup by a meth-smoking clique that once took control of the camp. According to Heather, a former resident, "There were new people, and the new people that came in all voted together and took the top three positions." This new ruling clique successfully banished their opposition from the camp like Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. They spent several happy days smoking meth in their tents and ruling Nickelsville, until the land owner threatened to kick the whole camp off his property, which would have seriously (and maybe permanently) fucked up a lot of people's only place to stay.
So how in the hell do you keep a bunch of people like that in line?
There's An Old-West-Style Justice System
Nickelsville has a very frontier-town spirit to it, like Deadwood, only without the guns and probably the same amount of swearing. Most punishment in Nickelsville is done via barring residents. Starting a loud argument late at night or besmirching another man's bindle might earn you a two- or three-day bar. But a few infractions carry the ultimate penalty: a permanent bar. And the various tent cities in Seattle communicate, so once someone is permanently barred from one camp, they won't be welcome in another. Assault or stealing another resident's property is grounds for a permanent bar.
While it would be great to trust that desperate people won't steal from you because you're also desperate, that isn't often the case. What's to keep a determined thief from avoiding the lock on your tent flap and just slicing open the canvas? Being barred from the only place you can stay other than the street, that's what.
Which seems even more harsh than the actual justice system.
At least jail has a roof.
That's also where the volunteer security guards come into play (Note: Falling asleep during your security shift is another permanent bar). We can't emphasize this enough: Homeless people are insanely vulnerable. Over 60 percent of homeless youth have been raped, otherwise sexually assaulted, or beaten. Homeless women in particular -- as many as 92 percent of them have experienced sexual and/or other violent assault on the street. Nickelsville offers a lot of resources to its residents, but the most valuable are those guards, that aforementioned fence, and its bright pink security shack (shown above).
To keep bad guys from moving in, Nickelsville runs a sort of background check, though their resources are limited. According to Heather, "When you first come in you give over your paperwork, your state ID, and we have printouts of the current list of sex offenders. The names of newcomers have to be checked against that list." Also, no drugs. We actually talked to a couple of residents from a nearby camp -- both responded to the question, "Why don't you live in Nickelsville?" with, "Because I want to get fucked up, and they won't let me." Hey, you can't say these people aren't honest.
Food, Water, And Power Are All A Matter Of Human Kindness (And Logistics)
It's awesome when people and restaurants donate their extra food to the homeless -- that stuff is what keeps a lot of them from going to bed hungry. But at the risk of sounding ungrateful, it's not awesome when they use homeless people as a dump for garbage food no human could safely eat. "We got a lot of food," says Heather, "but about 80 percent of it wasn't edible. ... Some stores would drop off rotting food just to get the tax breaks." Or, as another source, Leslee, says, "People would clean out their refrigerators and bring us whatever was bad."
Nothing says "basic human decency" like the refreshing tang of green mold.
Some companies come through, though. "We all loved Panera," says Heather. "You better get in on Panera morning quick, because it's first-come, first-serve." She's referring to Panera Bread, the sandwich chain that donates their unsold baked goods to the hungry.
As we mentioned, part of the responsibility for keeping the food taps flowing lies with the resident who gets saddled with the lofty corporate title of external affairs coordinator. But they are ultimately at the mercy of the kindness of strangers. "Once, when we needed food, I put up an ad on Craigslist," says Janay, a former EAC, "and there was this church couple, and they'd start bringing food every Tuesday."
Remember, the camp has no infrastructure -- no running water, no power lines. On the day we were there, the camp was running low on water because no one had gotten around to calling Goodwill yet to get jugs from them. Why? Because the camp phone was still charging:
This is what it takes to keep a cellphone going without a power outlet.
It's all about working with what you've got -- one resident had even managed to jury-rig the shit out of a donated generator ...
... and hook up a pretty decent home entertainment system, where many of the camp gathered to watch Archer for a couple of hours in the evening.
No matter how much of an audiophile you are, you will never put this much love into your setup.
Pets Make Homelessness Bearable ... But Are Banned At Shelters
Hey, ever see a beggar at a street corner sitting with his dog and say to yourself, "How can he afford to feed a dog when he can't even feed himself? Ayn Rand was right!"
Well, here's the thing: Homelessness is fucking hard. And boring. Pets alleviate boredom and depression, and they also do something less obvious: give their owners a schedule. Having a dog can help keep a homeless person alive for some of the same reasons they extend everyone's lifespans, with the added benefit that a dog can defend you from rampaging crack-heads. But shelters rarely accept animals, and neither do most of the tent cities. Nickelsville does, and as such has become something of a refuge for homeless people with furbabies.
Keep in mind, most of the former-Nickelodeons we spoke to were homeless for less than a year (this is true of most people who experience homelessness) and owned their pet before they found themselves out on the street. Well, how quickly would you abandon your dog or cat after you had just lost everything else? Several people we talked to credited their animals with helping control their drug habit and, eventually, getting off the streets altogether. As Heather says, referring to her cat, "I think if we hadn't had Sumi, we probably would've been on harder drugs. We agreed before we came in that we weren't touching anything harder than marijuana, and Sumi was a lot of the reason behind that."
Yes, they really are that important.
See, it's easy to give up on taking care of yourself if you're the only one suffering. It's harder to watch an innocent animal suffer if you can do something about it. So, having a pet is instant motivation to try to get your shit together. It's another little thing a homed person probably never thinks about, but to the residents of Nickelsville, it can be everything.
No One Wants A Tent City In Their Backyard (And That Means The Clock Is Always Ticking)
That's right, even in the progressive haven of Seattle, nobody wants a big pile of homeless people in tents next door. Nickelsville is allowed to exist thanks to a peculiar quirk of Seattle law giving religious institutions the right to designate land under their control as "sanctuary." Homeless cities are only legal when they occupy land rented or owned by a consenting "religious host" or a private owner who must have a contract with that host. But even those churches don't want a permanent homeless settlement on their property -- they accept them only with the promise they'll leave after a year. And so, every year, the residents of Nickelsville have to pick up everything -- tents, buildings, fence -- and move to some other spot in the city.
Why this is preferable to a small, organized neighborhood is anybody's guess.
And, each time, it's a fight. We said earlier that the city government won't evict Nickelsville once they set up shop, but they do try to block it whenever it moves somewhere new. On move day, the Nickelodeons rent a caravan of trucks with the help of fundraisers and donations, pack everything up, and make a beeline for their new land as quickly as possible before The Man can show up and stop them. And, as with everything else, the logistics of these moves are worked out by volunteers, usually current and former residents. In the case of Nickelsville, it's a former resident named Scott and his partner, Peggy.
According to Heather, "They would search for the places, set up fundraisers, do paperwork. They would do the things that nobody else could do." Scott has, in fact, been organizing the moves and finding Nickelsville new land for something like 20 years. He hasn't been homeless for most of that time, either. Scott and Peggy are two who moved on, improved their situation, and decided to keep trying to make a difference.
Hint hint, all you difference-makers.
That seems to be the common thread between Nickelsville and the other camps in the city -- former tenants come back, because they can never fully leave the tent city behind. At another camp, nicknamed "The Jungle," we met an old Vietnam vet, Mark, who was no longer homeless (thanks to assisted housing from the VA) but still came back every day. "I come down here and try to bring food for 'em, feed 'em. I usually make these burrito shells with rice and meat. I've been there, and I've got the facilities to do it. ... These are my friends, here. I didn't have anyone until I met these people."
If there is a better meaning to life than "Make good friends, and then
bring them burritos," we sure as hell haven't heard it.
Heather and Leslee are also no longer homeless. But as we sat around the fire pit at Nickelsville, bullshitting and enjoying a lovely autumn day in a place that looked weirdly like summer camp, Heather said, "Holy shit, I missed this." She seemed pretty surprised herself, and insisted that it wasn't life in the tent city itself she missed but that sense of community. And when you drive past a place like this, a field of tents or tarps or plywood, that's what you're seeing -- a bunch of scared castoffs coming together, relying on each other.
We're not trying to romanticize it; some of them are criminals and addicts, and many of them probably smell just terrible. But we don't need to romanticize it. They're people. That should be enough.
Robert Evans runs the Cracked Personal Experience article team, and he has a Twitter.
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It doesn't take much to end up homeless. Find out how easy it is to get there in 7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless. Or check out 5 Ways Your Life Changes When You're (Voluntarily) Homeless to get Adam Tod Brown's insight into the situation.
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