Living the American nightmare in a tented city

Sat, Mar 21, 2009, 00:00

When the tattered camp showed up on Oprah and al-Jazeera, city officials noticed, writes MARIA LA GANGA

THE TENT city in California’s capital, sprawling messily on a grassed-over landfill, is home to some 200 men and women with nowhere else to go. It has been here for more than a year, but in the last three weeks it has been transformed into a vivid symbol of a financial crisis otherwise invisible to many Americans.

The Depression had Hoovervilles, the shanty towns named after the president of the day. The energy crisis had snaking petrol pump lines. California’s droughts have empty reservoirs and brown lawns. But today’s deep recession is about disappearing wealth – painful, yes, but difficult to see.

Then this tattered encampment along the American River showed up on Oprah Winfrey’s show, al-Jazeera and other news outlets around the world. On Thursday, city officials announced they would shut down the tent city within a month.

“We’re finding other places to go,” said Steven Maviglio, a spokesman for Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. The camp is “not safe. It’s not humane. But we’re not going in with a bulldozer”.

On a recent chilly morning in the tent city, traffic whined along the adjacent freeway. Cats criss-crossed the encampment. As the sky slowly brightened, shadowy figures emerged and headed for the bushes along the riverbank. There were no portable toilets. The dumpster was a new arrival, a donation that followed the news reports.

Jim Gibson walked to a neighbouring tent, where two of his friends – an unemployed car salesman married to a one-time truck driver – were brewing coffee on a propane stove. Gibson (57) looked like anybody’s suburban dad, all jeans, polar fleece and sleepy eyes, his neatly trimmed hair covered by a cap. Seven months ago, the contractor had a job and an apartment in Sacramento. Today, he struggles to stay clean and fed. A former owner of the American dream, Gibson is living the American nightmare. “The only work I’ve found is holding an advertising sign on a street corner,” he said.

Survival is the biggest time-filler here. Tents must be shored up against wind and rain. The schedule for meals, clothing giveaways and shower times at local agencies must be strictly followed.

CeCe Walker (48), back from coffee, breakfast and a shower at Maryhouse, a daytime shelter for women, lugged a bag of ice for a half mile. “I’ve never camped in my life,” she said, sorting through supplies damp from yesterday’s melted ice. “This will make you old. I don’t see how people want to live out here forever. God!”

The tent city sprawls along the river in small clusters of “neighbourhoods”. Walker and her neighbour, Charly Hine (38), pitched their tents at the distant edge to stay away from noise and trouble. One neighbour displayed an American flag and a goose with the word “welcome” written on its breast. It is a favourite subject, its owner said, of news photographers. Another has a mailbox and a gate.

The largest and most raucous neighbourhood has some 70 tents pitched closest to the street. Near noon, Tammie and Keith Day were drinking beer around a cold fire pit, worrying about how she would get her diabetes medication and fretting about whether officials would shutter the tent city.

“We’re homeless and being evicted?” Tammie fumed. “Now I’ve heard everything.” Keith has rheumatoid arthritis. Tammie said they both battle mental illness and alcoholism.

One downside to the media attention, Tammie said, was that her family no longer paid for her prescription. They saw the news about the tent city.

But an upside rolled in. A pickup from Florin Worship Centre brought volunteers who distributed food. An SUV came next, bringing free tents. A Roseville handyman arrived with firewood.

Last week, the city of Sacramento announced that it could clear out the tent city in 14 days, but backed off after the mayor called an emergency summit meeting among city officials, homeless advocates and leaders in the homeless population. After a second summit meeting, Johnson announced new measures, among them finding more shelter beds for the tent city’s residents and investigating the feasibility of a permanent encampment. But not where it is now. In four weeks, he said, this one must close.

Sr Libby Fernandez, executive director of Loaves Fishes, a homeless support group, believes about four-fifths of the tent city’s residents have been homeless for more than a year.

Many of them are people like Preston Anderson (57), who would be happy if he never slept under a roof again. He has his dogs. He feeds stale croissants to wild birds and supports himself by scavenging cans. “Nobody bothers me,” he said. “I’m free.”

But the rest – a growing number – are recession victims, such as Boyd Zimmerman and his fiancee, Christina Hopper. They have lived in the tent city for seven months. In Phoenix, he had a job driving contract labourers from one site to another. They owned a doublewide trailer home.

Then work dried up. They sold their home “for almost nothing” and headed to Sacramento. He got a job at Loaves Fishes and is saving to rent an apartment. “I have to get the heck out of here,” he said. “It’s not a good life.”– (LA Times-Washington Postservice)