Are Tent Cities Springing Up Due To The Recession?


There have been more and more reports of tent cities springing up across the country as the economic crisis worsens, but it’s unclear if it’s a new problem, or one we’re now more aware of.

The new tent cities were featured on a recent episode of Oprah and President Obama was asked about them directly during his press conference on Tuesday night. Today The New York Times is reporting on “the arrival of modern-day Hoovervilles, illegal encampments of homeless people that are reminiscent, on a far smaller scale, of Depression-era shantytowns.” It has been reported that there are tent cities in Nashville, Sacramento, Seattle, and in many other cities across the nation.

The tent city in Sacramento received a tremendous amount of media attention after Lisa Ling visited it last month for The Oprah Winfrey Show and yesterday Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a plan to move the camp to a nearby fairground. There are about 125 people living in the camp, which is wildly different than the number that was initially reported, according to the Associated Press.

Some recent news reports were inaccurate in reporting that there were a thousand or more people living in the tent city and that many were there because of the recession.
Community groups say the majority of residents at “Tent City” are chronic homeless who have lived there for years.

While it has been reported that new tent cities are springing up as a result of the recession, many have existed for years. The Times says that many of the tent cities have “grown from smaller enclaves of the homeless as more people lose jobs and housing.”

Last week an article on The Huffington Post, questioned whether the tent cities are actually filled with the newly homeless, formerly middle class people whose houses were recently foreclosed on (like those featured on Oprah), or whether the majority of those in tent cities have been homeless for years. It said on The Huffington Post:

There’s nothing new about tent cities in the United States. There’s nothing new about poverty in America. Some folks will be living in improvised shelters in public space whether we’re in a recession or not. And with food stamps, unemployment benefits, and pension funds — things unavailable at the onset of the Great Depression — there’s a safety net that can catch the unemployed and foreclosed, giving them time to get back on their feet before they’re living under the stars.

The article in The Times today focuses on “New Jack City,” a tent city in Fresno. Michael Stoops, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told The Times, the new residents of the city are “able-bodied folks that did day labor, at minimum wage or better, who were previously able to house themselves based on their income.” But the article also says Fresno has received less national attention than other tent cities because the problem is chronic as, “Homelessness here has long been fed by the ups and downs in seasonal and subsistence jobs in agriculture.” Stoops said he predicts:

That the population at such new Hoovervilles could grow as those without places to live slowly burned through their options and joined the ranks of the chronically homeless, many of whom are indigent as a result of illiteracy, alcoholism, mental illness and drug abuse.

Though tent cities have been discussed as a new phenomenon, it’s likely that they are not yet filled with people who lost their homes as a result of the housing crisis. Though it’s possible that we will see more middle class moving to tent cities in the coming years, it should not be viewed as a new problem simply because people have an easier time relating to middle class people who have fallen on hard times rather than people who have been living in tent cities for years. The fact that anyone is homeless or living in a homeless shelter in the United States is obviously disgraceful, and it is unfortunate that it there was less national focus on the problem before a minority of the newly homeless moved into tent cities.

Lisa Ling Goes Inside A Tent City []
Cities Deal With a Surge in Shanty Towns [The New York Times]
Homeless In Calif. “Tent City” To Get Shelter [The Associated Press]
Tent Cities: An American Tradition [The Huffington Post]

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