In hard times, tent cities rise across the country
Since foreclosure mess, homeless advocates report rise
Associated Press - Sept. 18, 2008; updated 4:36 p.m. ET
RENO, Nev. - A few tents cropped up hard by the
railroad tracks, pitched by men left with nowhere to go
once the emergency winter shelter closed for the
Then others appeared - people who had lost their jobs
to the ailing economy, or newcomers who had moved to
Reno for work and discovered no one was hiring.
Within weeks, more than 150 people were living in tents
big and small, barely a foot apart in a patch of dirt
slated to be a parking lot for a campus of shelters
Reno is building for its homeless population. Like many
other cities, Reno has found itself with a "tent city"
- an encampment of people who had nowhere else to go.
From Seattle to Athens , Ga. , homeless advocacy groups
and city agencies are reporting the most visible rise
in homeless encampments in a generation.
Nearly 61 percent of local and state homeless
coalitions say they've experienced a rise in
homelessness since the foreclosure crisis began in
2007, according to a report by the National Coalition
for the Homeless. The group says the problem has
worsened since the report's release in April, with
foreclosures mounting, gas and food prices rising and
the job market tightening.
"It's clear that poverty and homelessness have
increased," said Michael Stoops, acting executive
director of the coalition. "The economy is in chaos,
we're in an unofficial recession and Americans are
worried, from the homeless to the middle class, about their future."
Caught by surprise
The phenomenon of encampments has caught advocacy
groups somewhat by surprise, largely because of how
quickly they have sprung up.
"What you're seeing is encampments that I haven't seen
since the 80s," said Paul Boden, executive director of
the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an umbrella
group for homeless advocacy organizations in Los
Angeles, San Francisco , Oakland , Calif. , Portland , Ore. and Seattle .
The relatively tony city of Santa Barbara has given
over a parking lot to people who sleep in cars and vans.
The city of Fresno , Calif. , is trying to manage several
proliferating tent cities, including an encampment
where people have made shelters out of scrap wood.
In Portland , Ore. , and Seattle , homeless advocacy
groups have paired with nonprofits or faith-based
groups to manage tent cities as outdoor shelters.
Other cities where tent cities have either appeared or
expanded include Chattanooga , Tenn. , San Diego ,
and Columbus , Ohio .
The Department of Housing and Urban Development
recently reported a 12 percent drop in homelessness
nationally in two years, from about 754,000 in January
2005 to 666,000 in January 2007. But the 2007 numbers
omitted people who previously had been considered
homeless - such as those staying with relatives or
friends or living in campgrounds or motel rooms for more than a week.
In addition, the housing and economic crisis began soon
after HUD's most recent data was compiled.
"The data predates the housing crisis," said Brian
Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD. "From the headlines, it
might appear that the report is about yesterday. How is
the housing situation affecting homelessness? That's a
great question. We're still trying to get to that."
In Seattle , which is experiencing a building boom and
an influx of affluent professionals in neighborhoods
the working class once owned, homeless encampments have
been springing up - in remote places to avoid police sweeps.
Reno shelters expand to tents
"What's happening in Seattle is what's happening
everywhere else - on steroids," said Tim Harris,
executive director of Real Change, an advocacy
organization that publishes a weekly newspaper sold by
Homeless people and their advocates have organized
three tent cities at City Hall in recent months to call
attention to the homeless and protest the sweeps - acts
of militancy, said Harris, "that we really haven't seen
around homeless activism since the early '90s."
In Reno , officials decided to let the tent city be
because shelters were already filled.
Officials don't know how many homeless people are in
Reno. "But we do know that the soup kitchens are
serving hundreds more meals a day and that we have more
people who are homeless than we can remember," said
Jodi Royal-Goodwin, the city's redevelopment agency director.
Those in the tents have to register and are monitored
weekly to see what progress they are making in finding
jobs or real housing. They are provided times to take
showers in the shelter, and told where to go for food and meals.
Hopes for casino jobs dashed Sylvia Flynn, 51, came
from northern California but lost a job almost
immediately and then her apartment.
Since the cheapest motels here charge upward of $200 a
week, Flynn ended up at the Reno women's shelter, which
has only 20 beds and a two-week limit on stays.
Out of a dozen people interviewed in the tent city, six
had come to Reno from California or elsewhere over the
last year, hoping for casino jobs.
"I figured this would be a great place for a job," said
Max Perez, a 19-year-old from Iowa . He couldn't find
one and ended up taking showers at the men's shelter
and sleeping in a pup tent barely big enough to cover his body.
The casinos are actually starting to lay off employees.
"Sometimes I think we need to put out an ad: 'No, we
don't have any more jobs than you do,'" Royal-Goodwin said.
The city will shut down the tent city as soon as early
October because the tents sit on what will be a parking
lot for a complex of shelters and services for homeless
people. The complex will include a men's shelter, a
women's shelter, a family shelter and a resource center.
Reno officials aren't sure whether the construction
will eliminate the need for the tent city. The demand,
they say, keeps growing.