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Tales of Tent City | The Nation

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Tales of Tent City

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California's ongoing budget crisis hasn't helped. Last year Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger slashed the state's already meager funding for emergency shelters. The year before, he vetoed a $55 million program that would have provided housing for 5,000 people with mental illness. His most recent budget proposal slashes nearly all the services that aid the growing ranks of the poor--cutting eligibility for Social Security and disability and eliminating what's left of the state's welfare system, as well as its entire health insurance program for children. The governor plans to borrow $2 billion from cities and counties, which will mean severely reduced funds on the local level. All of this likely will throw more people onto the streets.

About the Author

Ben Ehrenreich
Ben Ehrenreich’s most recent novel is Ether.

Also by the Author

W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country.

A Russian novelist’s fight, in life and art, to see the world afresh in all its cruelty and splendor.

But Tent City, says Joan Burke, advocacy director of Loaves and Fishes, "is the least desirable place to be homeless," and the last place the newly homeless are likely to end up. They stay with friends and relatives until those relationships fray, then in motels, cars and finally shelters. Thus, only a very few of Tent City's inhabitants could pin their plight on the recession.

Karen Hersh, 53, her skin red and peeling from poison oak, attributed the failure of her trucking company to rising fuel prices. She lived in her truck when she lost her home and stayed with friends when she lost her truck. Eventually, Hersh ended up in a shelter--"I didn't like it one bit. They steal from you. They gang up on you"--and finally in Tent City.

Fred and Linda, a Latino couple in their early 50s who preferred to keep their surnames to themselves, have been homeless for a year and a half. Fred worked as a mason until he burned his arm in an accident. He took time off to recover, but "when I went back to work, there wasn't a job for me." Construction had ground to a halt. Linda, a sometime warehouse worker, was out of work too. After they lost their apartment, no landlords would consider them. "If you're not employed," said Linda, "it's no go." They had come to Tent City in the hope that the media attention would mean a better chance of finding housing. So far, it hadn't. But Fred's unemployment payments hadn't run out yet, and the pair had rigged makeshift trailers to their bicycles to tow their belongings. If the police push them out, said Fred, "it ain't no big deal. We have three places we're thinking about."

Most of Tent City's residents, though, have been homeless for years. The original causes of their homelessness--an illness or injury, addiction, some life-shattering tragedy--blurred out in the distant past. "But on a structural, societal level," says Burke, the causes of homelessness are far from hazy: "It's the lack of housing that people can afford."

"I used to be a Republican. I voted for Ronald Reagan," a man who identified himself only as Tom M. told me, laughing. But it was Reagan who in his first year as president halved the budget for public housing. Over the course of his first term, more than half a million people were thrown off the disability rolls. "Until then," says Tim Brown, director of Sacramento County's Ending Chronic Homelessness Initiative, "basically there was no homelessness." Since then, neither the disability nor the housing budget has come close to recovering. Clinton-era welfare reforms cut all but the last remaining threads of the Great Society safety net.

Meanwhile, the real estate boom led to a drastic reduction in affordable housing. Through the 1980s and even into the '90s, says Sacramento Self-Help Housing's Foley, the city had no shortage of housing options for the poor: rooming houses, single-room-occupancy hotels, motel-like labor camps for cannery workers. "Almost all of that's gone," he says, victims of the insatiable housing market. Gone also are the vast majority of the unionized cannery and food processing jobs that for decades made it possible for workers here to become homeowners. Tent City sprawled just across the railroad tracks from one of the few major food processing facilities left in the city: the nonunion Blue Diamond almond plant.

Since 1996, the federal government has budgeted precisely zero dollars for new public housing. The waiting lists in Sacramento for Section 8 and public housing are five digits deep. Between 2001 and '09, however, the monthly income required to rent an "affordable" studio apartment here jumped from $1,025 to $1,433, "and wages have not gone up proportionally," Foley says. Working full time at minimum wage in California gets you just $1,280 a month. "It takes two people to rent an apartment," said Tent City resident Jessica McFarlin, "one to pay the bills and one to pay the rent, if you want to have food."

In Sacramento, some subsidized housing options remain for those with disabilities. "If you're disabled," says Brown, "your chances [of finding housing] aren't too bad in the next year." But as to the swelling ranks who are not disabled but simply can't find work--or who have jobs but still can't make their rent--Brown says, "they're shit out of luck."

For Tom M., the math was simple. He fell out of the corporate world several years ago and lived in his van until January, when he could no longer afford to keep it registered. He is 56, with high blood pressure, a heart condition and, he said, "the mental thing"--he's convinced he's being stalked. "It gets pretty intense sometimes," he said. But he has been unable to qualify for disability, which left him with what little money he could earn recycling cans and a monthly county General Relief check for just over $200.

The day before I met him, Tom M. had left Tent City to apply for subsidized housing. His experience, he said, was typical: "I was in line for hours and never got to see them. There's so many people," he shrugged, "and only so much resources."

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