Tarp Nation: Squatter Villages and Tent Cities in the Economic Crisis

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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.

In any other country, these threadbare villages would be called slums, but in the United States, the preferred term is tent city, a label that implies that they are just a temporary phenomenon. Many journalists, eager to prove that the country is entering the next Great Depression, blame the emergence of these shantytowns on the economic downturn, calling them products of fore­closures and layoffs.

While there’s some truth to this notion, the fact is that these roving, ramshackle neighborhoods were part of the American cityscape long before the stock market nosedived, and they are unlikely to disappear when prosperity returns. The recent decades of real estate speculation and tough-love social policies have cut thousands of people out of the mainstream markets for work and housing, and the existing network of shelters for the homeless is overburdened and outdated.

People such as the Caros are part of a vanguard that has been in crisis for years, building squatter settlements as a do-or-die alternative to the places that rejected them. This paral­lel nation, with a population now numbering at least 2,000 in Fresno alone, was born during the boom times, and it is bound to flourish as the economy falters.

“The chickens are coming home to roost,” says Larry Haynes, executive director of Mercy House, an organization based in Southern California that serves homeless people. “What this speaks of is an absolute crisis of affordability and accessibility.”

Against a backdrop of faded industrial buildings and rusty water towers, Taco Flat looks like a relic of a bygone era. These rough-and-ready dwellings, untouched by the luxuries of electricity, sewage lines, and cable connections, seem like an aberration in a country that has grown accustomed to newness.

Much of the shock value of tent cities comes from the fact that they force one to do a bit of time travel, revisiting an atmosphere of social disorder that seems more fitting to a Gold Rush-era squatter camp, and a level of destitution that recalls the Hoovervilles of the 1930s. Even tent city residents themselves feel trapped in circular trajectories of history, doomed to lives shaped by the threat of lawlessness and the ever-looming peril of relocation.

Frankie Lynch, one of the self-proclaimed mayors of Taco Flat, has ancestors who fled Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years, only to discover a new kind of poverty in the farmworker camps of California’s Central Valley. Now he’s drifting, too, unable to find the construction work that used to pay his bills.

“It’s just going back to the same thing,” says Lynch, 50. “I remember my grandparents and my dad talking about labor camps, and going town to town to work.”

Crime is a concern here–according to county estimates, 41 percent of the homeless population has been incarcerated at some point–but the greatest fear for most Taco Flat residents is that they’ve lost their place in mainstream society, whether as a result of mental or physical illness, of past mistakes, or of the whims of global capitalism.

In better times, they might have weathered their troubles, getting by with work in factories, call centers, or construction sites. But those jobs are gone, and many people wonder if they will ever come back.

Tent cities have much in common with the squatter camps of the Great Depression, but to simply call them Hoovervilles is to ignore their complexity. To truly understand them, one must look at current trends in the developing world, where informal urbanism–a form of “slum” development that takes place outside the conventions of city planning–is now the predominant mode of city-making.

Informal urbanism, characterized by unauthorized occupation of land, makeshift construction, and lack of public utilities, is how many burgeoning nations meet their housing needs. It thrives in places like Fresno, where poverty is endemic and there is a wide gap between rich and poor.

Rahul Mehrotra, an associate professor in the urban studies and planning department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says there’s a kinship between Taco Flat and the squatter settlements of Mumbai, India, where he runs an architectural firm.

“It’s really a reflection of the government’s inability to provide housing affordably across society,” Mehrotra says. Informal urbanism also thrives wherever people face exclusion from the mainstream markets for work and shelter, he adds, whether they are excluded for ethnic, economic, or political reasons.

This can be seen in Taco Flat’s large contingent of undocumented workers, who left their homes in Latin America to find work on the Central Valley’s farms and construction sites. As borders tighten and the threat of immigration raids lingers, the act of signing a lease has become more risky, prompting many to forgo formal housing altogether. Undocumented workers are also plagued by low wages, which aren’t keeping pace with the rising costs of housing. This hardship has only been exacer­bated by jobs disappearing in the Central Valley, where an ongoing drought is turning some of the world’s most fertile farmland into a desert.

The situation has left Mexican workers like Juan Garcia, 21, suspended between two countries. In neither country is there a guarantee of a livelihood, and home is all too often an abstraction. At least in Garcia’s native state of Colima, there are always the comforts of family.

“It’s better in Mexico,” Garcia says. “I’m going back.”

In Fresno and other struggling cities, which perpetually strive to boost tax revenues with development, tent cities are often seen as symbols of criminality and dereliction, glaring setbacks to neighborhood revitalization efforts. That perception is common wherever informal urbanism exists, Mehrotra says, and it often leaves squatter camps on the brink of ruin.

“You are always on the edge of demolition,” he says. This hit home in Fresno a few years ago, when workers began raiding encampments throughout the city, tearing down makeshift homes and destroying personal property. The city of Fresno and the California Department of Transportation conducted these sweeps in the name of public health, citing citizen complaints about open-air defecation.

Yet the raids did nothing to stop tent cities from forming, and they ultimately led to lawsuits. In October 2006, residents who lost their homes in the raids filed a class-action suit against the city of Fresno and the state of California. A U.S. district judge ordered the defendants to pay $2.3 million in damages.

Two hundred miles south of Fresno, there’s also been a battle over tent cities in the Inland Empire, an industrial stronghold that stretches out into the deserts east of Los Angeles. Flying into Ontario International Airport, one can see the nucleus of this struggle, in a neighborhood less than a mile from the tarmac.

There, on a stretch of vacant land surrounded by aging homes and abandoned orchards, tents are arranged in neat rows. This used to be one of Southern California’s largest squatter settlements, an unruly village of tarp and scrap wood that grew until some 400 residents called it home. People moved here from as far away as Florida, recalls Brent Schultz, Ontario’s director of housing and neighborhood revitalization.

Local officials were disturbed to find out that Ontario was becoming a magnet for the dispossessed, Schultz says. Rather than simply bulldoze the makeshift neighborhood, Ontario officials embarked on a $100,000 campaign to discipline and punish squatters, setting up a formal camp where tarp dwellings became symbols of order.

In the spring of last year, police and code enforcement officers issued color-coded bracelets to distinguish Ontario residents from newcomers, then gradually banished the out-­of-towners. Then they demolished the shanties and set up an official camp with a chain-link fence and guard shack. Residents were issued IDs and a strict set of rules: no coming and going after 10 p.m., no pets, no children or visitors, no drugs, and no alcohol. About 120 people stuck around, but many left to escape the regimentation. As of July, the population was about 60.

“It’s like a prison,” says Melody Woolsey, 40, who has lived in both versions of the encampment. Schultz, on the other hand, considers the camp one of Ontario’s greatest success stories. Some of the camp’s residents agree: They say it’s a bit like a gated community on a modest scale, a rare haven where one can live affordably without fear of robbery or violence.

“Some people come up here and say it looks like a concen­tration camp, but they don’t live here,” says Robert, 51, an unemployed factory technician. “They’re only looking at it from the outside. I look at it that it’s a secure community.”

Yet the neighborhood is filled with angry people who were excluded from the camp and left to take shelter in cars or in other vacant lots, often under threat of police citations. Many of these outcasts see the camp as a symbol of injustice, a cynical and inauthentic gesture of compassion.

For people throughout the American West, the very concept of home is changing, adjusting downward to a reality in which buying cheap land, picking out a subdivision lot, or even renting an apartment has become nothing more than a fancy daydream. That’s a painful realization for a region steeped in myths of plenty. But in these hard times, tent cities increasingly are the last province of hope for having a place of one’s own.

Tent cities like Taco Flat are communities like any other, and if they are neglected, they will be lost to crime, addiction, and illness. Yet whenever officials act to destroy or stifle them with punitive regulations, they not only wipe out the pride of residents struggling to survive, they also jettison a spirit of self-­reliance and innovation that could be harnessed to help meet the housing needs of the future.

The promise of tent cities begins with their architecture. Makeshift dwellings may not be the dream homes of yesteryear, but they are simple, affordable, and sustainable in their use of salvaged materials. With imaginative designers, they could help solve the present housing crisis, a faster alternative to the process of building shelters and low-income apartment complexes.

That possibility is already taking shape in Portland, Oregon, where activists have carved out a space for improvised dwellings in Dignity Village, a community that can house up to 60 people. Founded in 2000 and now approved by the city, it’s considered a model by housing advocates worldwide.

Beyond the check-in desk in the village’s security post, residents find a balance between the human needs for safety and personal freedom. Most are required to do at least 10 hours of community service a week–helping build or remodel homes, for example–but otherwise they set their own schedules.

“This isn’t a flophouse,” says Joe Palinkas, 55. “This is a community place. You support the village by taking care of yourself as if you were on your own.”

Tent cities also could become a locus for action and dialogue, a place where outreach workers, social service agencies, and everyday citizens can reach out to society’s most vulnerable members.

Leaders in California’s Central Valley might do well to take inspiration from Dignity Village. Instead, planners still see tent cities as obstacles to revitalization. Fresno and Madera counties recently adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness, and Gregory Barfield, the area’s newly appointed homelessness czar, says tent cities aren’t part of the picture.

“A Dignity Village for us is not the best course of action,” says Barfield. “We’ve got to find out a way to move forward with housing people.”

But such talk means little to Taco Flat residents like Arthur Barela, 45, who lost his job when the Central Valley’s farms began to dry out. For him, the only real home is the one he has made with his blankets, his tent, and his tarp. He still has the strength to keep his place clean, but his frame is nearly skeletal.

“Hopefully, things don’t get chaotic and things don’t get out of hand,” says Barela, kneeling before his tent as if in prayer. “Sometimes hunger can make a person do crazy things.”

Excerpted from High Country News (March 16, 2009), “an essential resource for those who care about the West.” Nominated for 2009 Utne Independent Press Awards for general excellence and environmental coverage. www.hcn.org

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