Friday, September 19, 2008

In hard times, tent cities rise across the country

In hard times, tent cities rise across the country

Since foreclosure mess, homeless advocates report rise

in encampments

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.

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.

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