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California officials to relocate members of homeless encampment
03-21-2009, 03:02 AM,
#1
California officials to relocate members of homeless encampment

California officials to relocate members of homeless encampment

Sacramento mayor announces plans to move residents to shelters, apartments or other accommodations



A few miles from California's state capitol, on a pasture of land bounded by a railroad track and the tranquil American river, a large cluster of homeless men and women has settled in what's been dubbed Tent City.

With perhaps hundreds of makeshift tents, no running water or bathrooms, and trash strewn everywhere, the encampment conjures up images of populations from developing countries living in America - so stunning it drew Oprah Winfrey's attention last month, and then a crush of national and international media coverage.

Now, Tent City is coming down.

Sacramento, California, mayor Kevin Johnson said yesterday officials plan to close the encampment within the next few weeks and move residents to shelters, apartments, and other accommodations.

"We're not going to go in and sweep them out of there," the mayor said at a news conference. "We've got to have tough love, but we've got to be compassionate."

The burst of media coverage is not the kind of publicity the mayor, a former basketball star, might have hoped for during his first months in office.

Some stories portrayed Tent City as a modern day Hooverville, a reference to the shantytowns built by homeless men driven into poverty during the Great Depression. With foreclosure rates in the Sacramento region among the highest in the US, the ragtag camp has been depicted as a symbol of the economic meltdown - people who'd lost their homes and were suddenly pitching tents along a riverbed.

The truth is somewhat less dramatic.

Although a sliver of the roughly 200 Tent City residents are recently working-class people who lost their homes, the overwhelming majority – 80% to 90% by several estimates - have been homeless for years, even decades.

Some residents said yesterday they have enjoyed the camaraderie of Tent City.

"We all take care of each other," said Michelle Holbrook, 34, who arrived with her dog, Angel, about a month ago after losing her job caring for an elderly man. "I've become the camp mother - I do most of the cooking and make hot water for coffee."

Still, living conditions are deplorable. Yesterday, one woman used a jug of water to bathe herself next to her tent. With no portable toilets, a man said he had no choice but to relieve himself a short distance from the living area. Although a garbage company recently placed a dumpster nearby, litter is everywhere.

"It's nicer than being in prison," said David Ewing, 39, who has lived within a half-mile of the Tent City site for nine years. "But it's a little bit rough out here."

Loaves & Fishes, a homeless facility about a 10-minute walk from Tent City, has provided meals and showers for the encampment dwellers. And in recent weeks, shelter officials have assumed the additional duty of ushers to news reporters and TV crews.

"What's different about the tent city is that so many people are gathered in such a visible site," said Joan Burke, Loaves & Fishes' director of advocacy. "I think the media attention is a positive because it lets the public know there are people actually living in third world conditions."
Typically the homeless aren't allowed to gather in such large numbers, but a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the homeless against the city and county, combined with the media attention, caused law enforcement to ease up on enforcement of the city's anti-camping ordinance.

"It sort of created a window of tolerance," said Tim Brown, who oversees a Sacramento initiative to end chronic homelessness.

Some Tent City residents are anxious about the pending shutdown and the prospect of moving again, but others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"Right now it's day by day, and whatever happens happens," Holbrook said.

While the impression of Tent City as a haven for foreclosure victims isn't accurate, it is true economic stress is driving up demand for homeless and social services in the area.

The director of Sacramento's St John's Shelter for Women and Children, Michele Steeb, said she's now having to turn away more than 200 people each night, a tenfold increase from just two years ago.

Many of the women seeking help lost jobs recently, or were forced out of their apartments or homes when landlords lost their properties to foreclosure.

"We are seeing a lot more people affected by this economy," Steeb said.

City leaders are grappling with how to respond to the bigger problem, realising the measures announced yesterday may dismantle Tent City, but they won't eliminate the forces that created it.

Some have suggested the city officially sanction a Tent City at a different site in Sacramento, and provide water and sanitation. Other cities, such as Portland, Oregon and Phoenix, Arizona, have created tent encampments for the homeless.

"I do think," Johnson said, "that a tent city could potentially be a viable option."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/2...tion-california


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