Tales of Tent City
In the end, Sacramento dealt with its Tent City with more compassion than can usually be expected. "If they had a great big rug they could sweep us under somewhere, they would," predicted Karen Hersh, and she was right. The broom, fortunately, came in the form of temporary fixes, not arrests. The city scrambled to raise money for forty additional units of subsidized housing (few of which were ready before Tent City was cleared) and fifty additional shelter beds, which quickly filled. Local advocates for the homeless had vowed civil disobedience if any arrests were made, so to avoid an embarrassing confrontation, the city came up with motel vouchers for the last few dozen holdouts. "The bulk of the people," though, said Loaves and Fishes' Joan Burke, "just dispersed to more hidden camps." By April 20, everyone was gone.
No one pretended the problem had been solved. Renting hotel rooms for the homeless, said Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Johnson, "is obviously not sustainable in the long term," particularly with homelessness on the rise. For now, the newly homeless, whose predicaments are directly related to the recession, are not yet desperate enough to camp in blighted fields. They look less like John Kraintz and Tom M. and more like 38-year-old Kysia Bell, a clear-eyed home healthcare worker and mother of two who lost the home she was renting when her landlord fell into foreclosure.
"I didn't know that the owner wasn't paying the mortgage," she said. "We got a note on the door that we had to vacate within two weeks." At the same time, her hours were cut, making it impossible to come up with the deposit for a new apartment. She and her daughters stayed with relatives as long as they could, then with friends and finally in her car until they found beds at St. John's, Sacramento's largest shelter for women and children. Bell was lucky: in 2007, St. John's was forced to turn away about twenty people a day. So far this year, that number is up to 300.
Nearly 400 miles south, in Ontario, California, Tent City hides behind a bureaucratic mask. City officials call it the Temporary Homeless Services Area, or THSA, but until March 2008, it was just Tent City. About nine months earlier, local police began directing everyone they found sleeping in parks and alleys to an empty field near the city's airport. Word got around that you could camp there unharassed, and the new encampment quickly grew.
As in Sacramento, the Ontario Tent City's inhabitants were victims not of the immediate recession but of older, less dramatic economic shifts. Take the white-bearded man who identified himself only as Cowboy. He was a long-distance truck driver until a stroke slurred his speech and paralyzed his right arm. The $900 in veterans' benefits and SSI he receives each month might pay for a small apartment but would leave nothing for food, so Cowboy lived with his mother until she died, then with cousins, then on the streets and finally, at age 57, in Tent City.
In March, after herding the local homeless population to Tent City, police and code enforcement officers descended on the encampment and required its inhabitants to prove they were residents of Ontario. Those who could not--all but 127--were evicted. The city bulldozed and graded the field, erected orderly rows of matching green tents, issued ID cards to those who remained, fenced the encampment and posted a list of rules: no re-entry after 10 pm, no alcohol, no pets, no minors, no visitors. Now private security guards patrol the THSA's perimeters, ejecting anyone who doesn't have permission to be there, including reporters.
None of the Tent City residents I interviewed from just outside the fence complained much. They were fed three meals a day and were otherwise left alone. The rules were infantilizing, but the people largely shrugged them off. Still, more than a third of those permitted to stay in the THSA have left for good. No new arrivals have been admitted. Isaac Jackson, coordinator of the county's Office of Homeless Services, credited Ontario with doing "a great job" of reducing Tent City's population. Neither city nor county officials, though, knew if any of those who have left Tent City have found a better source of shelter than a tent.
It seems unlikely. The federal stimulus package will give California $189 million in homelessness prevention funding and another $100 million in community service block grants that local governments can use for homeless services. The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act, passed in May, authorizes another $2.2 billion nationwide. But as the feds give with one hand, the state takes away with the other, and no one at any level of government is attempting to tackle the systemic roots of homelessness, or to reconsider housing as something more vital to human dignity than market forces allow. For now, Cowboy and his neighbors are unaware of any resources available for more permanent lodging than a tent in a fenced-off field.
In April I asked Brenda Hill, who had been there from the start, if she knew where she'd go if Sacramento closed Tent City. She shook her head sadly. "Nope," she said. "Nowhere."