Tales of Tent City
Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
"This is the bigger picture," said John Kraintz, with a sweep of his arm, indicating the roughly two dozen remaining tents pitched around him on a muddy, pockmarked field between the city dump and the slow green waters of the American River. Kraintz is a thin man of 57, a former electrician who had lived in Sacramento's parks and riverside lots for seven years. His home had been right here--in Tent City.
Kraintz had relocated to Tent City's outer boroughs. Its downtown, which briefly attracted camera crews from all over the world--a Third World shantytown in the capital of the richest state in the richest country!--was a couple of hundred yards away. Depending on whom you ask, somewhere between 150 and 300 people lived in Tent City between November and April. But by the third week in April, when I visited, most had already packed up. Some had migrated to this spot to avoid police attention. But the cops came, handing out notices announcing, "It is unlawful to camp in the City of Sacramento" and giving people two days to leave. ("This is not camping--we're living!" yelled one of Kraintz's neighbors.) By the end of the week, everyone had left. Tent City, for that moment at least, had disappeared.
Few people there, though, doubted that it would be back. Tent City is less a single location than a nomadic but constant phenomenon, a shifting blue-tarped shadow to the glass and steel American metropolis. In good times and bad, Tent City comes and goes, forms and scatters and takes shape again. Despite its momentary dispersal in Sacramento, it is still out there--in Seattle, Portland, Reno, Providence, Fresno, even in the sprawling exurbs of southern California in the small city of Ontario. Tent City existed at the height of the real estate boom too, hidden in plain view, an omen for anyone willing to look.
While recent media accounts portrayed Tent City's incarnations as creatures of the recession--reborn Hoovervilles for the laid off and the foreclosed--shantytowns have been a periodic but permanent feature of American urban life for at least the past two decades. They are what connects us to São Paulo, Lagos and Mumbai, physical manifestations of our growing inequality and societal neglect. Seattle saw its first Tent City in 1990. The area now boasts three, one dating back to 2000, another to 2004. Portland's Tent City ("Dignity Village") has been around since 2001. No one living there, says resident Gaye Reyes, is recently homeless. In California's San Joaquin Valley, the City of Fresno last fall began distributing a $2.3 million settlement to homeless people whose property was destroyed when the city repeatedly razed its Tent City between 2004 and 2006, at the apex of the economic boom.
As early as 1989, dozens of homeless were pitching tents on the precise site of this year's Tent City in Sacramento. They called their community, without irony, "Camp Hope." Since then, other tent cities have sprung up there for a few weeks or months. It's hardly an idyllic spot--no sanitary facilities, few trees, no shelter from the wind or rain--but it's out of sight and a short walk to Loaves and Fishes, a nonprofit that provides free meals and other services.
This latest Tent City was notable mainly for its density, a product of increased enforcement of anti-camping ordinances in the city's parkland, where Sacramento's homeless were once able to spread out unmolested. In November police broke up a camp of more than 100 people on the sidewalk outside the Union Gospel Mission. Police officers instructed them, Tent City residents said, to resettle here. The Sacramento Bee first reported on the newest Tent City in December. Oprah Winfrey sent a correspondent in February. After that, said Tent City resident Danny Valadez, "It went like a cyclone," buzzing with journalists and new arrivals. Most reporters focused exclusively on the few Tent City residents whose predicaments could be linked directly to the economic collapse. "They were all looking for Henry Fonda [in The Grapes of Wrath]," laughs Paul Boden, director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project.
The rise of Tent City, though, says John Foley, director of the nonprofit Sacramento Self-Help Housing, had "almost nothing to do with the recession." But the recession has made poverty visible again, and Tent City tells the grueling backstory to the current recession--nearly thirty years of cuts in social services to the poor and mentally ill, the decimation of the industrial economy and the cruel underside of the housing boom. Kraintz, despite his soil-caked clothes and matted hair, summarized that narrative with more precision than most white-shirted economists can manage: "We've seen falling wages and rising rents. The two finally collided."
The economic collapse has without question pushed people out of their homes. The National Alliance to End Homelessness warns that 1.5 million Americans could be thrown into homelessness over the next two years. In Sacramento, homelessness has jumped 14 percent since 2007, even though the population categorized as "chronically homeless"--the disabled and mentally ill--has fallen by 35 percent. Sacramento was hit particularly hard by the mortgage crisis--the city had the third-highest foreclosure rate in the country in 2007--and folks who have recently seen their incomes disappear are finding themselves with nowhere to turn.