April 9, 2009
As our government wages economic warfare against its own people, the existence of a middle class dwindles and disappears. Regardless of your political outlook, the situation has become obvious and the gap between rich and poor widens everyday. In this shifting socio-economic landscape, where will the middle class find themselves?
All around our country, phenomenon’s called ‘Tent-Cities’ are popping up as a response to our current economic crisis. There are large groups of people, banding together in open spaces, and they all have one thing in common: a desperation to survive in the growing desert that is our economy.
This is not a new story. We have all heard tales from our parents, and grandparents about these types of encampments. In The Great Depression, communities like Tent-City were not a phenomenon but rather the norm. Anyone who has fallen on financial troubles has had the thought, if they could just slow the outpour of money, they could catch their breath and start anew. Today, living in the dawn of The New World Order – this type of self help has become illicit.
In Sacramento, people deemed ‘homeless’ have been singled out by media monsters and a government of celebrities, who couldn’t be further removed from the day to day struggles of real people. Under the guise of help, Sacramento’s Mayor Kevin Johnson and Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger have placed these refugees in their cross hairs. And how does the attention manifest itself? Are they helping people to find jobs? Do they create programs to transition people off the street and into homes? Of course not. It is business as usual in this bloated and corrupt government. Money is funneled into already failing programs that do nothing more than perpetuate the problem by placing a band-aid on an already infected wound.
Before we left for Sacramento, there was a diligent attempt to speak with both Mayor Johnson and Governor Schwarzenegger in order to get their comments. From both sides, we were met with resistance and told by their publicists that both politicians would be out of town during our residency at Tent-City. This was particularly odd because when we arrived at Tent-City we learned that ‘The Governator’ had just visited the encampment, which was contrary to his publicists time line. Of course, approved media was politely invited to capture this photo opportunity. Infowars was not among those privileged journalists deemed safe enough to attend. But our special brand of journalism allowed us to peer beyond the veil and to see this situation for what it really is. This is the first contractions of the birth of a new world order. Welcome to total control. Or as the Mayor’s office referrs to it ‘tough-love’.
One of our first goals in Tent-City was to get an accurate headcount. After several days of walking the perimeter, our numbers reflected a population of almost 600 people. This was shocking because the million dollars earmarked to alleviate this plight will only create 50 more beds at the winter shelter at Cal Expo. There is no mention of what will happen to the 550 additional occupants of Tent-City or the 10 or so new occupants arriving everyday other than threat that they will be forced to leave. In addition to being seriously short of any kind of real solution, this shelter only serves to control its occupants and creates a culture that intensifies an already bad situation.
The Cal-Expo Winter Shelter is housed in the State Fairgrounds, in a old miniature golf course and is simply a bleeding heart’s money pit. The schedule of arrival and departure from the winter shelter is a bureaucratic nightmare, to say the least. This only serves to complicate the lives of the small group of people eligible for help. As we watched the 100 male shelter candidates mill about over a protracted period of 3 hours, vying for the small amount of shade, small vans shuttled inhabitants from Tent-City to Cal Expo.
Tim, an employee of Volunteers of America, the organization in charge of the winter shelter, told us the protocol for securing a bed. He explained how would-be residents arrive at the fenced off bus depot and sign-in. ‘Newbies’ are given priority and then available beds are given to ‘Repeaters’. While sign-in is technically not until 4pm, we learned that if you aren’t in line by 2:30pm you might as well not even show, as the chances you will get a bed are slim. The lucky few that make it are allowed to bring one bag to the shelter. All other belongings have to be stored in large, group containers.
Then, once the inhabitants enter the shelter, they are searched and told to submit to electronic scan to check for weapons. The schedule dictated by the shelter makes having, or getting a job an impossibility. As we were told countless times that unless you can find a flexible position that will allow you to work between the hours of 5am and 2:30pm there is nothing to do but give yourself up to this constricting schedule. Imprisoned by this schedule, inhabitants become wards of the system, and soon loose the ability to make decisions for themselves. And thus the mentality of homelessness is solidified and the refugees become less inhabitants and more inmates. But the control doesn’t stop there. Men and women are separated at the shelter and not allowed to interact. Intense searches are conducted and pets are denied asylum with their human companions. In the downward trajectory, these people have had almost all their humanity stripped away. In many cases, it starts with the inability to pay into the institutions that most of us also labor to satiate. When they lose the ability to pay rents or mortgages, their homes are lost. When they stop paying auto insurance, their cars are impounded and auctioned. When they try to survive on the street, their children and pets are snatched by government institutions.
During one particularly startling interview with met with a young man who had his RV taken without warning because he had to make the choice between maintaining his vehicle and paying high insurance premiums. After losing his job as the marketing director of a flooring company, Jason moved into an RV in an attempt to streamline his overhead. While repairing the vehicle, Jason made the mistake of not procuring insurance. When he was pulled over, instead of receiving a fix-it ticket, his car was immediately impounded, and he was left on the side of the road with only the possessions he could carry and the clothes on his back. Because of his situation, he was forced into ‘homelessness’ and unable to get his RV out of impound. As a result, all his worldly possessions were auctioned. He had no idea where the money that was raised by auction went and simply became somber at the mention of it. The money, his previous life, and a part of his soul were simply gone. Jason’s life had been gobbled up by a system that makes sure that is void of human empathy.
Another facet of life in Tent-City revolves around relationships between men and women. Most of the women we encountered were victims of domestic abuse, fleeing their abusers.
In order to successfully reside in Tent-City, these women had to forge bonds with men. This is one of the main problems of separating men from women at the shelter. Only a few women, like C.C. survived with the help of a pit bull and a small group of women who looked out for one another like sisters. Repeatedly, we were told that by these women that they felt safe where they were. Societal bonds at work, even in this microcosm.
Another overlying theme was the self segregation of the tent city residents. We were informed of four different areas – The snake pit a grassy area with lots of shade and about 30 -35 tents. The suburbs (45 tents) inhabited mostly by long time campers the tents had the most space between them. One citizen Mobilehome Dave had manged to procure electricity and had a modest settlement of five tents, a propane space heater, and a private toilet. The newbies area was populated with 50 tents and was set between the levee and a fenced off area. The largest area set under the power lines was called the ghetto by several residents and contained about 85 tents. We were told not to go there unless we knew someone there and definitely not to go in after dark. While we were there, a large bonfire consumed a couple of tents in the “ghetto” area promoting a visit from the fire department.
Beyond these obvious flaws in the system, there is the very real issue of misinformation presented as solution. Repeatedly, it is inferred that the winter shelter is a permanent solution to Tent-City. However, it is all too clear from the proposal that this is at best only a temporary solution, since its time line will only be extended to early June. There is also the very clear discrepancy of the numbers helped. 50 beds will barely make a dent in the number living in the encampment. In the end, we are not talking about a well thought out plan to get these people off the street and restore their dignity. This is more about creating inmates of a system that perpetuates helplessness and the hijacking of tax-payer monies in a state that repeatedly has trouble balancing its own books. So what is the answer?
Tent-City, while not ideal, is the closest solution to the problem while still maintaining some sense of freedom. The infrastructure for aid is already present in the immediate community with Loaves & Fishes – a faith based organization living in the trenches with the inhabitants of Tent-City. At Loaves & Fishes, residents can eat, shower, make calls, and get medical help. Volunteers from local churches drive out on the levee every evening to pass out hot food and clean water to the gracious campers. It really comes down to the simple question, do you want to be an inhabitant of a community or an inmate of a system? While it is not pretty at Tent-City, there is the very real sense that these people are living by their own accord the best the can. They answer to no one, and the only price they pay is sharing the burden with their fellow campers. It may not be middle americas best answer for the homeless epidemic, but tent cities are happening and in the next few years as the economy continues to spiral downward you may find yourself pitching a tent.
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