Homeless encampments around the country are mushrooming, much to the embarrassment of government officials, may of whom prefer to hear no evil, see no evil. In Fresno, California, a shantytown called "New Jack City" is host to newly poor, unemployed electricians and truck drivers, who share space with drug addicts and the mentally ill who have been homeless for years.
And, thanks to Oprah, Sacramento is famous for its homeless tent city, featuring several hundred people residing in pitched tents bordering the American River. With refuse strewn everywhere, and no potable water or bathroom facilities, this celebrated shantytown is clearly a sanitation risk.
Almost as soon as the media ran with the story, plans were made to shut down the Sacramento tent city in the foreseeable future. City officials will relocate the homeless to other, presumably more sanitary, areas (e.g., at the site of the state fairgrounds, Cal Expo). According to the Sacramento Bee, "homeless campers" will be ousted in about four weeks, as the private property will be fenced off to ban the tent city population.
California's capital is not the only city to be brought to its knees by photos of disheveled citizens with nebulous futures. Reports of burgeoning tent cities in Nevada, Tennessee, and Washington State (just to name a few) have kept local governments hopping to fix the trouble before the media spotlight targets their own cities.
Spotlight on Shantytown in Sacramento
Initial reports of huge numbers of people living in the tent city in Sacramento probably were inflated, we know now. Estimates of 1200 tent dwellers were simply exaggerated by overzealous or slapdash journalists. Incorrect numbers aside, the problem remains: the new poor and the chronically homeless live side by side, with nothing but a cloth roof over their heads.
I spoke with Sister Libby, executive director of the now-infamous Loaves and Fishes in Sacramento, which provides charitable assistance to the hungry and homeless.
Sister Libby said, "We have over two to three hundred folks here in the Sacramento tent city. At its height, about 2-3 new faces a day were showing up. Of the tent city population, 80-85% have been homeless for over a year. Only about 10-15% are the "new poor" - those with a recent job loss or home foreclosure.
We have seen a lot of new faces - mostly women with children - coming in to find shelter.
Last year, according to Sacramento government statistics, the countywide homeless total was around 1200 people. It's probably more like 1400 now.
Since they have decided to close the tent city in Sacramento and provide 150 extra shelter beds in other locations for these folks, I worry about the people who are mentally ill or have drug and alcohol issues - which comprise about 50% of the tent city residents. They aren't shelter-ready. What is the government going to do with them?"
Mayor Kevin Johnson said the city's shelter demand has increased "four-fold." The executive director of St. John's Shelter in Sacramento said they turn away 230 women and children each day, as opposed to the twenty turned away daily in 2007. These numbers indicate a dramatic explosion of growth in the homeless population, but many are hesitant to attribute this sudden rise in homelessness to the current economic downturn.
Modern Hoovervilles Abound
City officials in Fresno report three major homeless encampments adjacent to the downtown area, and smaller sites near the highways. All told, Fresno's homeless population is about two thousand people, living in shantytowns with grim names such as Taco Flats or the aforementioned New Jack City. Drugs, violence, and prostitution are common in the Fresno tent cities, as people react to the stress of living outdoors with no services - and no money.
Individuals in Seattle, Washington who have lost their jobs and homes reside in tents in the back of a church parking lot, derogatorily called Nickelsville. Named for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, whom residents say doesn't much care about their plight, the Nickelsville shantytown is home to about one hundred campers a day.
Nashville, Tennessee has its own problems with tent cities. According to NewsChannel5.com, Nashville has one large tent city south of the downtown area, with at least thirty additional homeless camps scattered throughout the region. There is a concern about this "huge surge in the number of encampments," and the issue has reached "urgent" proportions. Attributing the rise in homelessness to the faltering economy that brings with it increased foreclosures and job layoffs, city officials are seeking answers - and fast - to their local homeless crisis.
In Reno, Nevada, officials closed a tent city in 2008 that housed about 160 residents. Now, the sidewalks of Reno serve as beds to some sixty homeless people with nowhere else to go. There are homeless camps on Record Street, and local merchants believe their business is down because of the sea of homeless vagabonds invading store sidewalks and blocking customer access to shops.
Reno officials are attempting to prevent another tent city from emerging in the summer of 2009, but with less revenue available for alternative housing, this remains to be seen.
What can we conclude from the rapid increase in homelessness across the nation? The facts are clear: there are more people, especially women and children, who are out on the streets, without a dime. At least 10-15% of homeless individuals are the "new poor," or those who have recently lost their jobs and homes. We can be certain that if the economy doesn't improve soon, there will be more of the new poor pitching their tents in shantytowns across America - maybe in your neighborhood.