Tarp Nation: Squatter Villages and Tent Cities in the Economic Crisis
Camping for their lives
image by Reuters / Max Whittaker
Marie And Francisco Caro needed a home after they got married, but like many people in California’s Central Valley, they didn’t have enough money to sign a lease or take out a mortgage.
They were tired of sleeping on separate beds in crowded shelters, so they found a slice of land alongside the Union Pacific Railroad tracks in downtown Fresno. The soil was sandy and dry, prone to rising up into clouds when the autumn winds came. All around, farm equipment factories and warehouses loomed out of the dust, their walls coarse and sun-bleached like desert mountainsides.
Even a strong person could wither in a place like this, but if they wanted to build a home, nobody was likely to stop them. So Marie and Francisco gathered scrap wood and took their chances. They raised their tarp roof high like a steeple, then walled off the world with office cubicle dividers. Thieves stayed outside and so did the wind, and the sound of the passing freight trains softened.
When I visited the Caros in January, a fire burned in a repurposed oil barrel, warming the cool air, and fresh-cut Christmas tree boughs hung on the walls for decoration.
While Francisco chopped wood, Marie confided that she wants to live somewhere else. All she needs is a modest place with a sink and a gas stove, she said, maybe even a television. But until times change, she said, she’ll be happy in her self-made abode, cooking on top of the oil barrel, making meals with whatever food God brings.
“He gives us bread,” said Marie, a Fresno native who quit school in the 10th grade, ashamed of a learning disability that got in the way of her reading. “I’m just waiting for my home.”
From the well-kept interior of the Caros’ place, one can hardly see the jagged rows of tents and shanties on the vacant land around them. About 200 people—primarily poor whites and migrant workers from Mexico—have built informal habitats along the railroad tracks.
There are many names for this fledgling city, where Old Glory flies from improvised flagpoles and trash heaps rise and fall with the wavering population. To some it’s Little Tijuana, but most people call it Taco Flat.
Just to the south, under a freeway overpass, there’s another camp of roughly equal size called New Jack City where most of the residents are black. Even more makeshift dwellings are scattered throughout the neighborhood nearby.
Fresno, which the Brookings Institution ranked in 2005 as the American city with the greatest concentration of poverty, is far from the only place where people are resorting to life in makeshift abodes. Similar encampments are proliferating throughout the West, everywhere from the industrial hub of Ontario, California, to the struggling casino district of Reno, Nevada, and the upscale suburbs of Washington state.
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