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Accidental Campers

A bad economy has forced some Americans to live in tent cities.

Ernest Thomas dreamed of building a wood picket fence to surround his property, and laying down fresh gravel in his front yard. It’s just that Thomas, 49, never imagined his new fence would enclose a compound of four tents covered by large blue plastic tarps on the edge of the American River in Sacramento, Calif., the capital of America’s wealthiest state.

“This is what happens when you can’t find a paycheck,” says Thomas, a journeyman roofer and master carpenter who had no problem finding work during California’s construction boom. “For 30 years, I always had work, but now construction work is just so slow. I’ve gone from $21 an hour to this. Without work, what is there?

“I’m not going to waddle in self-pity,” Thomas continues, as he sits on a lawn chair while the sun begins to set, wondering what he’ll eat for dinner. “I’m not going to give up and lay down. I’m not happy that I’m here, but I think I have some skills, and maybe one day some guy coming down here will see my picket fence and say, ‘Hey, I can use a man who could build that.’”

Here, near the epicenter of America’s real estate meltdown, homelessness has a new face. More than 500 people live here, on vacant land where the city lets them shelter themselves however they can. Along with the chronic cases of drug addiction and mental imbalance, the newest residents of this growing encampment are men like Thomas, or Corvin Garland, 57, a former car salesman and factory foreman, who says he once earned $65,000 per year. These newcomers are older and have never lived like this before. They often find they lack the survival training demanded to brave the elements and uncover the right mix of charity and social services to keep them going from day to day. And in tent cities nationwide, more and more people are hoisting canvas and hoping for better days. (Update: Sacramento announced yesterday that it is closing the tent camp and everyone will be evicted.)

How to Live in a Tent

“It’s like living on a wagon train that isn’t going anywhere,” says Garland, who now has learned to put two layers of plastic sheeting under the tent he shares with his new wife, Tena, 50, and to reinforce their shelter to keep it from collapsing in 50 mph winds. “There’s a difference between water-resistant and waterproof,” Garland says, explaining how he uses the plastic to keep driving rains from soaking the bottom of their tent. “You learn by trial and error.”

Garland, whose dirty blond hair is now thinning, says he has lost 10 pounds since the couple moved here about a month ago. They have a Coleman gas burner to boil water for coffee, a TV set that runs on batteries, and some camp chairs. But sleeping outdoors has its drawbacks. Since nighttime temperatures in Sacramento can dip into the 40s, it can be hard for the couple to stay warm. There are no trees to block the wind. And although the Garlands’ new tent has side panels that will allow breezes to pass through, they wonder what life will be like in summer, when local temperatures regularly top 100 degrees.

“People who think they are having it hard have no idea what it’s like to be out here,” he says. “I’d love to be in an apartment with a roof over my head and a hot shower, thinking about how bad things are.”

The Garlands met at the Salvation Army last fall, after Tena lost her job driving dump trucks at a construction site in Indiana and came back to California. “It’s been sort of slow, steady progress downhill,” Tena Garland says. “You come out here when you’ve got no place else.”

“We thought if we were married it would be easier for some group to find us housing,” Corvin Garland says. “In fact, it’s worse because there’s nothing offered for married couples. They want us to separate and go into separate shelters.”

Older Homeless ‘Fall Between the Cracks’

With the full impact of the jolting recession only beginning to hit, no comprehensive data yet exist to document the rise of people over 50 among the newly homeless. Anecdotal evidence from across America suggests, however, that homelessness may be growing fastest among those ages 50 to 62—renters whose owners have lost their homes to foreclosures or workers who have lost their jobs in the recession and can no longer pay their mortgages. Because of their age, these newly homeless often fall between the cracks—too young to receive Social Security benefits, yet too old to get job training or other aid targeted for at-risk youth and young adults.

“It’s almost pointless looking for work,” says Garland. “There’s not a lot of hiring going on when you’re 50.”

Thomas, who once injured his back on a job site, echoes that sentiment. “If you’re over 50 and had a disability claim, nobody wants to take on the liability to hire you,” he says. “And no one wants to offer you job training at my age.”

A recent study conducted by Loyola University Chicago estimated that between 2001 and 2006 the number of clients ages 50 to 62 seeking help from homeless assistance groups in that city rose 26 percent. More striking: Unlike the chronic homeless, a majority of those ages 50 to 64 seeking help had become homeless for the first time in middle age.

According to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, shelters and service programs in his city have reported a 400 percent increase in demand from clients as a result of the economic slowdown. “There’s been a marked increase in the amount of people who used to own their homes, lost their jobs to foreclosure and are now looking for shelter,” he says. “You also have renters where it’s the landlord who has lost the home,” and the tenants are forced into the street.

“Before, it was the veteran, or the person who had a substance abuse problem or maybe a mental problem who was on the streets. The problem sort of came in a clean package,” says Johnson, a former National Basketball Association star who was elected mayor last November. “That is nowhere the case now.”

No Room at the Shelters

From less than a dozen tents a year ago, about 300 tents now spread across the area—a broad, grassy plain bisected by a Union Pacific freight line and the flood control levees. An almond-processing factory is nearby. The tent city expanded after homeless shelters found they could no longer meet the growing demand, according to Joan Burke, director of advocacy for Loaves and Fishes, a faith-based charity group that offers hot showers and hot lunches to hundreds of homeless people each day, as well as a school for homeless children, a medical clinic and a day shelter for women.

“The shelter system was already oversaturated before the recession hit,” Burke explains. “Now we see lots of people who have never been homeless before. They are high-functioning people who are able to take care of business, but they are homeless because of the lack of job opportunities.” Loaves and Fishes operates on an annual budget of $3.8 million, but won’t take government aid so that it can advocate directly for the poor and homeless.

It is hard to tramp through the lean-tos and campfires without drawing comparisons to the Hoovervilles that sprang up across America during the Great Depression of the 1930s. While some of the residents have the weathered looks and grizzled features consistent with involvement with alcohol or methamphetamines, many others seem clear-eyed and well-kempt, even if the outdoor living is taking an obvious toll on their physical condition and self-esteem.

“We don’t want things handed to us on a silver platter,” says Carol Carlile, 57, a redheaded former home health care worker. “I want a job. I want off the streets. We just need a little bit of a hand to get up that ladder a rung or two.”

Already, the city of Ontario, Calif., has created a “resident only” tent city encampment, and other homeless sites have sprouted in places like Nashville, Tenn., Seattle and Fresno, Calif. A tent city in Portland, Ore., has become a permanent encampment known as Dignity Village.

Jim Gibson, 50, who worked for three decades in a variety of construction trades, owned a vacation home on Lake Tahoe four years ago. His home today is a two-person pup tent not far from the Garlands’.

A trim man with a graying, walrus-style mustache, Gibson says he was promised a job with a Sacramento construction company last fall; he stayed for nearly a month in a motel as he waited for work to start. Then the company changed its mind, citing the poor economy. “Before I know it, I’m in the mission gospel center looking for a hot meal.”

“I’ve always worked and provided for my family,” says Gibson, who raised six children. “I’m still willing to work, but there are just no jobs out there. Pride keeps me from asking my children for help when I figure they’re only about a paycheck away from being homeless themselves.

“It hurts to be out here,” he added. “I just hope I can help myself.”

Long-term future?

Like the Garlands, Gibson often walks the 15 minutes to the Loaves and Fishes compound for a hot meal and a shower, and spends a few afternoons a week standing on a street corner waving placards for $7 an hour for a local retailer. But even if the campers receive an allotment of $200 a month in food stamps, the assistance won’t get any of them into reliable, affordable housing.

“What does $7 an hour really get you?” asks Gibson, who bought his tent after being denied a bed in a mission because his day labor job got him back to the facility 10 minutes late. “You end up here when you have no place else to go.”

The long-term future of this tent city is not yet clear. While Mayor Johnson insists there is a “moral obligation” for the city to take care of its homeless, he has also refused to permit volunteers to install portable toilets or running water, because it might suggest this encampment would be taking on an air of permanence. He says the tent city may have to close, although he supports the idea of a permanent location with better facilities.

“There is no way we should allow people to live in Third World conditions,” Johnson says. On the other hand, “we don’t want to become a magnet” attracting homeless people from across the state.

Thomas, who had to pawn his tools because he could no longer afford to store them, says he never imagined he would live like this. “It’s a real eye-opener. I never ever went camping before.”

He is learning to adjust. Thomas built a full floor from wooden pallets to raise his tent above the bare ground; he used other pieces of wood to build a low wall that blocks out the wind. Under the giant plastic sheets that protect his living area, he has installed a small orange carpet, a lounge chair and nightstand. In a separate tent, he stores supplies and staples.

“I always wanted a house with a picket fence,” Thomas says. “Just not quite like this.”

Michael Zielenziger writes on business and the American economy.

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