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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.”

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