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Depression Blues: Tent Cities among Us
See the Homeless . . .Click thumbnail to view full-size
Homeless camps need to be established across the country
I write this story from Sacramento, California, where a homeless camp, or tent city, if you will, has sprung up in recent times. Temporary home to some 100 to 300 people, this rough and ready place sits atop the old landfill near the American River, where, curiously enough, the oldest European encampment took root back in 1839. How’s that for irony?
This improvised community has no running water, sanitation, electricity or security. Trash is scattered all over the place, and you have to wonder where and how people do their “business,” if you know what I mean.
Back in the 1930s, people lived in tents and shanties along the American river, as well as the nearby Sacramento river. In that not-so-long-ago time, places such as this were called Hoovervilles, a derisive reference to President Herbert Hoover, who was in office during the start of the Great Depression. (Therefore, should the present ones be called Bushvilles?) The start of that “down-turn” was unfettered capitalism running amok, as well as a fair amount of greed, stupidity and incompetence. Does this sound familiar?
The unfortunate folks in Sacramento’s tent city may be moved eventually, but this government action will only reduce the homelessness in tent city itself, not eliminate homelessness in the area. Many people have been living in tents along both local rivers, even though it’s illegal, and have been doing so for months if not years. (I’ve actually been acquainted with some of these people. I call them campers.)
Of course, the homeless in Sacramento can only expect so much help from the state of California, because it’s heavily in debt. In fact, California is on the dole from the federal government! Many states are, of course. Also, charitable organizations are doing what they can. At any rate, there’s plenty of free food to be had in town, so hunger is probably not an issue for these unfortunate people. It seems that in America few if any people need to go hungry, and that’s a blessing indeed.
Other cities in the country have their own homeless camps or tent cities: Fresno, California; Los Angeles; New York City; Reno, Nevada; Seattle, Washington; Olympia, Washington; Nashville, Tennessee and St. Petersburg, Florida. How many more cities will be added to this list in the coming weeks and months?
Many of the people in these makeshift camps are minimum-wage earners who were living on the edge until becoming jobless. Perhaps one answer to this problem is paying people a wage that allows them to accumulate enough money for savings. If not, then we could build permanent tent cities with running water, toilets and perhaps security as well. Couldn’t we afford it? I’ve always thought we could. Certainly America could. Shouldn’t this be a priority rather than sending our men and women to fight in wars of dubious necessity?
Fresno, California, a community of about one-half million, has had a large problem with homelessness for years. Fresno’s mayor, Ashley Swearengin, is committed to a 10-year plan of creating permanent housing for the homeless, hoping that the added cost of housing would be offset by a reduced demand on shelters, emergency rooms, mental hospitals, detox centers, jails and courts. Other communities such as Denver, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon have already implemented similar projects.
The most sobering realization to this problem is that homelessness can happen to just about anybody. Try to imagine living in one of these tent cities. How would you take care of life’s daily necessities? Would you be able to stand the mental strain? Have you ever gone a week without taking a shower? Could you do your business in a can? Perhaps you ought to start thinking about this possibility sooner rather than later.
At any rate, keep your friends and family close.
Moving Toward The Present
In mid April 2009, Sacramento’s tent city was demolished and the folks sent packing from the land owned by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. However, many of them simply moved a few acres away, refusing to leave the area, their arms linked in solidarity, their faces raised in song.
But many of these former tent city residents went to various homeless shelters throughout the city, particularly the one at Cal Expo, with its 200 beds and some couches as well. A lot is being done for the homeless in the area, but it remains to be seen if the city can keep up with demand in the coming months.
As of July 2009, the Cal Expo shelter has been closed, forcing its “residents” back on the streets. The homeless in Sacramento are still looking for a permanent place to camp, preferably one that’s clean and safe, of course. Will they ever find one?
In September 2009, 17 homeless people were arrested for camping in a vacant lot near the corner of C and Thirteenth streets. The owner of the property, Mark Merin, had given permission for these destitute people to stay; in fact, each had signed a lease. However, a city ordinance forbids camping for longer than 24 hours.
Mayor Kevin Johnson had visited the camp and spoke to some residents, though he didn’t spend the night. Johnson has proposed making a permanent camp where up to 60 people could camp with basic services such as water and disposal. But the approval by the City Council for such a “safe ground” almost certainly won’t happen before the winter.
Sacramento native, journalist Lisa Ling, visited Sacramento in November 2009, showing her support for Mayor Kevin Johnson who wants to provide 2,400 permanent housing units for homeless people in the Sacramento area over the next three years. It’s estimated there are 2,800 homeless people in Sacramento. Ling had visited the nationally known tent city back in February 2009, two months before its “residents” were ordered off the property.
In March 2010, Sacramento Steps Forward initiated a campaign to help homeless people in Sacramento find shelter or even a place to call home. The organization asks people to donate one day’s rent or mortgage payment to the Sacramento Region Community Foundation. It’s been estimated that over 4,200 people per year experience homelessness in Sacramento.
In December 2011, the authorities cleared away a homeless encampment near the American River. Dubbed Tent City II by locals, these homeless folks had to move elsewhere, essentially breaking into much smaller groups and living who-knows-where, the alley behind one's house perhaps.
California’s Only Homeless Camps
There is a legal tent city in California. Located in the city of Placerville, about 30 miles east of Sacramento on Highway 50, this camp for the homeless has been dubbed Hangtown Haven. Established in July 2012, the camp has all the amenities: portable toilets, washing stations, electricity, safety light, running water and a mini-kitchen under a tent.
But, per the city of Placerville, because of safety considerations, another location for the homeless camp needs to be found; otherwise, it will have to close by November 2013.
The Placerville camp was closed in November 2013.
As recently as December 2014, another homeless camp was open in San Jose, California, but the authorities shut down that one too.
Homeless People Camp Outside City Hall
In early 2016, homeless people camped in front of City Hall in Sacramento. They refused to leave until the city gave them legal places to camp. (It’s illegal to camp anywhere inside the city limits of Sacramento.) City leaders maintain that the city of Sacramento does much to help homeless people find shelter and that the answer to homelessness doesn’t include camping; instead, permanent housing needs to be provided for homeless people.
Before long, the police forced these homeless folks to leave City Hall, where they’ll probably return and protest once again. It’s been estimated that at any one time, as many as 3,000 people may be homeless in the Sacramento area. Interestingly, a penalty for illegal camping may include a $147 fine, jail time or community service.
I’ll keep you posted.
© 2009 Kelley