Saturday, July 11, 2009

Tent Cities Aren't New: They Never Went Away

In The Nation, Barbara Ehrenreich shows that the growing number and size of tent cities around the country are less a manifestation of the foreclosure crisis and the recession than a newly-visible symptom of our structural economic dysfunction.

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.


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."


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.


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."

Read the whole thing.

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