Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cities Deal With a Surge in Shanty Towns

This is so heartbreaking. -Patricia

By Jesse McKinley | New York Times
March 26, 2009

FRESNO, Calif. - As the operations manager of a
outreach center for the homeless here, Paul Stack is
used to seeing people down on their luck. What he had
never seen before was people living in tents and lean-
tos on the railroad lot across from the center.

"They just popped up about 18 months ago," Mr. Stack
said. "One day it was empty. The next day, there were
people living there."

Like a dozen or so other cities across the nation,
Fresno is dealing with an unhappy deja vu: the arrival
of modern-day Hoovervilles, illegal encampments of
homeless people that are reminiscent, on a far smaller
scale, of Depression-era shantytowns. At his news
conference on Tuesday night, President Obama was asked
directly about the tent cities and responded by saying
that it was "not acceptable for children and families
to be without a roof over their heads in a country as
wealthy as ours."

While encampments and street living have always been a
part of the landscape in big cities like Los Angeles
and New York, these new tent cities have taken root -
or grown from smaller enclaves of the homeless as more
people lose jobs and housing - in such disparate places
as Nashville, Olympia, Wash., and St. Petersburg, Fla.

In Seattle, homeless residents in the city's 100-person
encampment call it Nickelsville, an unflattering
reference to the mayor, Greg Nickels. A tent city in
Sacramento prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to
announce a plan Wednesday to shift the entire 125-
person encampment to a nearby fairground. That came
after a recent visit by "The Oprah Winfrey Show" set
off such a news media stampede that some fed-up
homeless people complained of overexposure and said
they just wanted to be left alone.

The problem in Fresno is different in that it is both
chronic and largely outside the national limelight.
Homelessness here has long been fed by the ups and
downs in seasonal and subsistence jobs in agriculture,
but now the recession has cast a wider net and drawn in
hundreds of the newly homeless - from hitchhikers to
truck drivers to electricians.

"These are able-bodied folks that did day labor, at
minimum wage or better, who were previously able to
house themselves based on their income," said Michael
Stoops, the executive director of the National
Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group based in

The surging number of homeless people in Fresno, a city
of 500,000 people, has been a surprise. City officials
say they have three major encampments near downtown and
smaller settlements along two highways. All told, as
many 2,000 people are homeless here, according to
Gregory Barfield, the city's homeless prevention and
policy manager, who said that drug use, prostitution
and violence were all too common in the encampments.

"That's all part of that underground economy," Mr.
Barfield said. "It's what happens when a person is
trying to survive."

He said the city planned to begin "triage" on the
encampments in the next several weeks, to determine how
many people needed services and permanent housing.
"We're treating it like any other disaster area," Mr.
Barfield said.

Mr. Barfield took over his newly created position in
January, after the county and city adopted a 10-year
plan to address homelessness. A class-action lawsuit
brought on behalf of homeless people against the city
and the California Department of Transportation led to
a $2.35 million settlement in 2008, making money
available to about 350 residents who had had their
belongings discarded in sweeps by the city.

The growing encampments led the city to place portable
toilets and security guards near one area known as New
Jack City, named after a dark and drug-filled 1991
movie. But that just attracted more homeless people.

"It was just kind of an invitation to move in," said
Mr. Stack, the outreach center manager.

On a recent afternoon, nobody seemed thrilled to be
living in New Jack City, a filthy collection of rain-
and wind-battered tents in a garbage-strewn lot.
Several weary-looking residents sat on decaying sofas
as a pair of pit bulls chained to a fence howled.

Northwest of New Jack City sits a somewhat less grim
encampment. It is sometimes called Taco Flats or Little
Tijuana because of the large number of Latino
residents, many of whom were drawn to Fresno on the
promise of agricultural jobs, which have dried up in
the face of the poor economy and a three-year drought.

Guillermo Flores, 32, said he had looked for work in
the fields and in fast food, but had found nothing. For
the last eight months, he has collected cans, recycling
them for $5 to $10 a day, and lived in a hand-built,
three-room shack, a home that he takes pride in, with a
door, clean sheets on his bed and a bowl full of fresh
apples in his propane-powered kitchen area.

"I just built it because I need it," said Mr. Flores,
as he cooked a dinner of chili peppers, eggs and onions
over a fire. "The only problem I have is the spiders."

Dozens of homeless men and women here have found more
organized shelter at the Village of Hope, a collection
of 8-by-10-foot storage sheds built by the nonprofit
group Poverello House and overseen by Mr. Stack.
Planted in a former junkyard behind a chain-link fence,
each unit contains two cots, sleeping bags and a solar-
powered light.

Doug Brown, a freelance electrical engineer, said he
had discovered the Village of Hope while unemployed a
few years back and had returned after losing his job in
October. Mr. Stoops, of the homeless coalition,
predicted 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.

That mix is already evident in a walk around Taco
Flats, where Sean Langer, 42, who lost a trucking job
in December and could pass for a soccer dad, lives in
his car in front of a sturdy shanty that is home to
Barbara Smith, 41, a crack addict with a wild cackle
for a laugh.

"This is a one-bedroom house," said Ms. Smith, proudly
taking a visitor through her home built with scrap wood
and scavenged two-by-fours. "We got a roof, and it does
not leak."

During the day, the camp can seem peaceful. American
flags fly over some shanties, and neighbors greet one
another. Some feed pets, while others build fires and

Daniel Kent, a clean-shaven 27-year-old from Oregon,
has been living in Taco Flats for three months after
running out of money on a planned hitchhiking trip to
Florida. He did manage to earn $35 a day holding up a
going-out-of-business sign for Mervyn's until the
department store actually went of out business.

Mr. Kent planned to attend a job fair soon, but said he
did not completely mind living outdoors.

"We got veterans out here; we got people with heart,
proud to be who they are," Mr. Kent said. "Regardless
of living situations, it doesn't change the heart.
There's some good people out here, really good people."

But the danger after dark is real. Ms. Smith, who lost
an eye after being shot in the face years ago, said she
had seen two people killed in New Jack City, prompting
her to move to Taco Flats and try to quit drugs. Her
companion, Willie Mac, 53, a self-described youth
minister, said he was "waiting on her to get herself
right with the Lord."

Ms. Smith said her dream was simple: "To get out of
here, get off the street, have our own home."

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