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.