"It started out with two people under a viaduct," said Nicole, a resident, "and without Nickelsville a lot of us would be still sleeping under bridges or on sidewalks."
Nickelsville's name began as a mayor-jabbing allusion to the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression Era, but many of its residents say it's come to represent ideals of home and community since it began in late September.
On Sun., Feb. 8, supporters and members of Nickelsville gathered at University Baptist Church to discuss the impending relocation date: Thurs., March 5. Residents and supporters are hoping to find a larger, permanent location, accommodating up to 1,000 people, where a sustainable, eco-friendly community can be built.
Nickelsville serves around 100 of Seattle's homeless people as an alternative to city shelters by allowing greater flexibility and security. Residents set up tents where they can keep their belongings and bundle up with their friends, relatives, and even pets. Resembling a low-budget intentional community, Nickelsville allows its residents to come and go at any time -- a distinct advantage for those who work odd hours and cannot make use of Seattle's shelters due to strict check-in and checkout times. Despite a high turnover rate, Nickelsville is very organized, with daily meetings, safety regulations, and a strict code of conduct enforced vigilantly by 24-hour volunteer security.
Nickelsville is currently located in the University District, utilizing the University Congregational United Church of Christ's parking lot for a camp site; it's the fifth location since the community formed in late September. Originally occupying a vacant plot in Southwest Seattle, Nickelsville residents have been harried from place to place over the past months by city officials.
The city's Department of Planning and Development notified the University Congregational Church Dec. 9 that they would be fined for hosting the camp, a land use code violation. Nickelsville organizers were asked to leave their prior location at University Christian Church after the city issued similar warnings. On Jan. 29, DPD granted University Congregational a four-week temporary permit; acknowledging the church's efforts to get their permission, it also granted a reprieve from earlier fines. The department has not fined any of the prior hosts.
Nickelsville was originally organized in response to Mayor Greg Nickel's sweeps to remove homeless people from public land. The mayor's website says that individuals contacted during these sweeps are offered shelter and even storage for their belongings, but residents of Nickelsville tell of being handled roughly, some being put in jail, and most losing their few possessions.
During the Sunday meeting, a range of options including abandoning the community and leaving Seattle were presented, but an overwhelming majority of hands advocated finding another temporary site until a permanent one could be arranged. The most lively debate was about the naming of Nickelsville. One speaker said that the name was preventing community groups from supporting Nickelsville: "The name engenders confrontation. I know, as a fact, that [we] have lost a lot of public support." Other speakers expressed concern that the name's aggressiveness is distracting from the positive goal of community building. Many other speakers, however, expressed loyalty to the name and worried that a name change would cause a loss of media focus and undermine the spirit of the movement. The meeting's chairman offered to take the idea back to a central committee for a vote.
Regardless of its name, this community means a great deal to its residents. Nicole, 26, a registered nurse, ended up on the street after she was let go from her job in November. She asked that only her first name be printed.
"Nickelsville is what shelters should be," she says. "I see people reaching out to everyone else and helping each other. It's been such a positive experience ... I wouldn't trade it for the world."