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Camps of homeless people have sprung up in cities such as Sacramento and Fort Worth, only to be shut down by local officials. Well, tonight, in Seattle, there is a public hearing to consider making the city's homeless encampment permanent. Seattle wants to take a different approach with a city-run camp on city-owned property.

Liz Jones of member station KUOW has the story.

LIZ JONES: It's Sunday night, and Nickelsville is full to capacity. About a hundred of Seattle's more than 8,000 homeless people live here. For now, it's set up at an old firehouse in the city's north end, next to a stretch of strip malls. The parking lot is packed with tents.

This camp banded together three years ago and has moved about 17 times since then. The name Nickelsville is a jab at Seattle's former Mayor Greg Nickels, who tried to have the camp shut down.

Around 6 o'clock, people start to wander inside.

Ms. PEGGY HOTES (Camp Organizer, Nickelsville): So Nickelsville does take pets and children. I think we have around nine dogs and eight cats.

JONES: Peggy Hotes is one of the camp's organizers.

There's a room for people with pets, several sleeping areas and a big kitchen.

Unidentified Man: We're all (unintelligible) around the food right now.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah. What's cooking tonight?

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, I cooked red beans, greens, rice, corn bread.

JONES: Residents here cook meals together. They also share in the camp's management.

Peggy Hotes thinks residents helping themselves and each other can help people get back on their feet.

Ms. HOTES: I've seen people come in here with their heads down, and then they're elected to something. And they see that they can participate in making things better to help solve the issue of homelessness.

JONES: One camper named Michael was recently elected to a leadership spot. He's asked not to use his last name because it could hurt his chances with prospective employers. He lost his job as a building engineer last summer, then moved here when he couldn't keep up with his rent.

MICHAEL: I want to see everybody trying to get out of Nickelsville and not into Nickelsville.

JONES: Do you see that happening here enough?

MICHAEL: Enough is a hard question. Some people may never get out of Nickelsville, but there needs to be a place for them too.

JONES: That's a perspective city leaders have recently started to share.

The city has designated a vacant lot where the camp can put down some roots.

It's adjacent to the freeway in Seattle's industrial south end.

Mr. MIKE PERINGER: Come five or 6 o'clock, everybody goes home.

JONES: That's Mike Peringer. He owns a shop nearby and is also president of the neighborhood's business association.

Mr. PERINGER: There's no supermarket anywhere. There's no drugstore. There's nothing. We're not anti-homeless camp. The issue is location.

JONES: A location, Peringer says, is basically the entrance to the city.

Seattle's Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith admits a permanent tent city is not the ideal response to homelessness, but he thinks it's worth a try.

Deputy Mayor DARRYL SMITH (Seattle): No one seems to have come up with a perfect situation or a perfect location to do something like this, but we don't want, you know, excellent - what we're grasping for - to keep us from doing something basic that can really help people.

JONES: Smith says if the camp is effective, the city could make it permanent. The vision for Nickelsville is often compared to another homeless camp in Portland, Oregon, called Dignity Village. It's been around more than a decade.

Nick Fish heads the Portland Housing Bureau. He calls the camp successful, even though 70 percent of people who leave are still homeless.

Mr. NICK FISH (Commissioner-in-Charge, Portland Housing Bureau and Portland Parks & Recreation): That particular statistic is of some concern. On the other hand, for the people that are living there today, they have a better place than the street to call home. What I tell people is, look at the big picture. Dignity Village is a very, very small part of our overall strategy.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Singing) (Unintelligible)...

JONES: The strategy for Nickelsville in Seattle is still taking shape. The city envisions people will stay in tents. But Michael, the building engineer, wants something more permanent. He's building some model houses, about the size of a garden shed, to show the city.

MICHAEL: It's going to be 8-foot tall with a slanted roof. A door with a lock. I'd like to have a solar panel in it.

JONES: It's not a tent. It's a tiny home built of wood. And however small, to Michael, that means stability until he can figure out what's next. And for others, who might need to move in after he moves on.

For NPR News, I'm Liz Jones in Seattle.

(Soundbite of music)

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