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The BBC's Julie Etchingham
"Tent Village has moved 14 times since it was set up in March."
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Friday, 16 February, 2001, 13:56 GMT
Homeless in Seattle
Tent Village
More than half the residents of Tent Village have jobs
By Julie Etchingham in Seattle

In the shadow of St Mark's Cathedral, in one of the wealthiest districts of Seattle, a community has set up camp - 100 people out of 6,000 homeless in the city.

Tent Village has moved 14 times since it was set up in March last year. Today it has to move on again - creating huge disruption for those trying to live as normal a life as possible.

Seattle skyline
Seattle is one of the wealthiest US cities
Mornings at Tent Village are busy because at least half the people who live here get up to go to work. But their living circumstances are a fact many keep secret from their employers for fear of losing their jobs.

Don Mitchell, who works as a builder, arrived in Seattle from Los Angeles, dreaming of cashing in on the area's success.

"I'm not happy living in a tent but while I've got breath in my body I'll get up to work," he said. "It's hard - you have to learn to cope. You work in the cold and you come home to sleep in the cold. It's uncomfortable."

Civilised society

Rules are strict at tent village - no alcohol, no drugs, and demarcated areas for families, singles and couples.

Everyone who lives here says it's more civilised than staying in the city's homeless shelters where inflexible regimes make it extremely difficult to hold down a job.

The very success of the region is putting up roadblocks to having homes

Greg Powers
Greg Powers works in the fishing industry. He's lived in a tent for three months - and is still trying to get the money together to put down a deposit on a small flat.

"Times are good and jobs are out there," he said. "The boom's not been quite as good as it was last year, although you can get work.

"But the rent, even on a small apartment, is about $800 a month - impossible if you earn the sort of money I do. The very success of the region is putting up roadblocks to having homes."

Feel-good factor

Seattle, which is home to Microsoft, Boeing and, has defined the feel-good factor in the US economy in recent years. The speed of growth may be slowing, but people are still pouring into the area - only to be faced by a housing market which puts the average cost of a family home at nearly $300,000.

Greg Powers
Greg Powers is saving for a deposit on a flat
The city council is spending $14m a year on provision of shelters for the homeless and, in conjunction with charitable organisations, is also building thousands of low-cost houses. But for every home built, three or four are torn down for redevelopment of lucrative business space.

Federal government funding for public housing was curbed sharply under Ronald Reagan, and has not been revived since. The city's deputy mayor says it has put them in an impossible position.

"In the US, the production of public housing used to be a central mission in the federal government - Reagan ended all that and it's been that way since then," he said.

"When the federal government takes a laissez-faire attitude towards a fundamental human need then you're going to have this problem - and the local government won't be able to deal with it."

Church support

The congregation of St Mark's has been supportive of the guests in their car park, and the dean has coordinated meetings between the tent villagers and the authorities in an effort to address the issue.

He says there are lessons here for every city struggling with housing problems.
Boeing's headquarters
Boeing's headquarters are in Seattle

"Do we want our cities to become ghettos for the wealthy, or do we want to have vibrant cities filled with people from across the economic and cultural spectrum," he said.

"These are issues for all of our major cities in nearly every part of the world."

Tent village hasn't just provided shelter for the struggling, it's also become a potent symbol of the plight of homeless people everywhere.

As its inhabitants prepare to move on, they reflect the needs of all those looking for a home and a future in the city.

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30 May 98 | Letter From America
The huddled masses of the homeless
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