Tarp Nation

Squatter villages arise from the ashes of the West's booms and busts

  • Lana Meranda peers through the flaps of her makeshift home in the Fresno, California, tent city called Taco Flat.

    Max Whittaker
  • The doormat outside Randall Steinhauer's home.

    Max Whittaker
  • Tents, blankets, cardboard, plastic sheeting ... each layer adds another bit of protection at Taco Flat in Fresno, California, where as many as 200 have made temporary homes on an empty lot in the industrial district.

    Max Whittaker
  • Rhonda Thompson and Jimmy Kelly bundled up against the cold damp.

    Max Whittaker
  • 19-year-old Andrea Campbell prepares for a day out.

    Max Whittaker
  • Lana Meranda watches as a friend stokes the barrel fire in her makeshift home.

    Max Whittaker
  • The dump on the edge of Taco Flat.

    Max Whittaker

Marie and Francisco Caro needed a home after they 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 homeless 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 an overturned oil barrel, warming the cool air, and fresh-cut Christmas tree boughs hung on the walls for decoration.

While Francisco chopped wood, Marie, 43, 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 little television for watching church services on Sundays.

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 have built informal habitats along the railroad tracks, primarily poor whites and migrant workers from Mexico.

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 dwellings are scattered throughout the neighborhood nearby, appended to the walls of industrial buildings and rising up the flanks of freeway spurs.

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, Calif., to the struggling casino district of Reno, Nev., and the upscale suburbs of Washington state.

In any other country, these threadbare villages would be called slums, but in the U.S., 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 homeless shelters 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 in the thousands 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," said Larry Haynes, the executive director of Mercy House, a homeless outreach organization based in Southern California. "What this speaks of is an absolute crisis of affordability and accessibility."

Anonymous says:
Mar 17, 2009 10:59 AM
Lana Meranda's dreamcatcher -- visible in the photo -- is a particularly poignant touch...

Thanks for noting that, despite the title of the article, the trends driving the formation of these informal urban villages were in place before the recession hit. We have a long way to go...

Anonymous says:
Mar 18, 2009 10:08 AM
The rise and fall of temporary housing communities in America in the current climate differs somewhat from the Hoovervilles of the 30s in that with a deepening recession the opportunity to migrate to work is less an option. As a citizen and architect, my concern for those who have to rely on these modes of housing is that they get pushed out, marginalized or as in the case of a growing many - criminalized. Planners and politicians look at these 'tent cities' not as a problem to be solved through dialogue, design and forward thinking policies but as a criminalized activity to be swept from the doorsteps of their cities. There is a growing sense of urgency from the design community to work with community and homeless advocates to create durable yet temporary housing solutions that give both a sense of dignity and security without becoming permanent. But this also involves the community as a whole, business leaders, city planner and politicians realizing that homelessness is not always a choice but an unwanted necessity that should be solved via creative thinking. Perhaps the temporary zoning of land for these tent cities, minimal services like solar-derived electricity, potable water and portable sanitation services providing a temporary reprieve. When I look upon these temporary communities and cities, I see less a failure of the individuals as much as a collective failure of the community as a whole to provide a floor for those who might most easily fall through the cracks of society.
Anonymous says:
Mar 18, 2009 05:46 PM
What this situation really speaks of is the simple fact that social policies intended to help the poor actually hurt them, in both good times and bad.

Minimum-wage laws make it illegal to hire workers whose labor is worth less than the minimum wage, because no company will pay $7/hour for labor that provides only $5/hour worth of benefit to the company. Thus, minimum-wage laws cut off the bottom end of the labor market, and prevent the least skilled workers from working.

Minimum-wage laws also increase the costs of basic commodities by reducing the profitability of unskilled labor, which is a major contributor to the costs of food, housing, clothing, and public transportation.

Finally for now (though there are many other problems with these well-intentioned but misguided social policies), it's generally true-- a fundamental fact of human nature-- that artificially inflating the demand for a thing tends to increase the supply of it. Any social program that actually succeeds in transferring wealth to the poor is, in practical effect, a reward for poverty-- that is, a form of artificial demand.

By increasing the demand for poverty, we stimulate an increase in poverty.

As a concrete example of this general rule, these tent cities make it easier to be homeless. If being homeless was more painful, some of those people would put forth more effort to avoid the pain, and would not be homeless.

Homelessness is not a fact of nature. It is not a condition imposed by genetics or God. It's the result of bad decisions made by the homeless themselves, and by their parents, teachers, and politicians. It's a shared responsibility. Because bad political decisions played a role in creating these problems, good political decisions will be needed to help solve them-- decisions based on a more honest understanding of the limits and consequences of political influence.

Anonymous says:
Mar 18, 2009 05:48 PM
I entered my name as just "Peter" and my comment was posted under the name Peter Huffman. I am not Peter Huffman. My apologies to Peter Huffman, whoever he is. :-)

Anonymous says:
Mar 19, 2009 01:42 PM
I believe that you are attacking a straw man here, with the price of all necessities increasing so much faster than the compensation provided to those who provide the labor to increase the wealth in our economy, we have reached the point where basic neccessities(housing&health care especially) have been priced out of the reach of people like those featured in this article. The unwise adoption of trade policies that put our citizens in direct competition with the most poverty stricken areas of the world economy has been a MAJOR contributor to this phenomena, and is in direct opposition to the policies we used to become the World's wealthiest & most powerful nation. These "Free Market" policies coupled with a lackadaisical approach to the the quality of public education in this country are the real reason why such innappropriately low wages are even considered in the richest country on the planet. This is exacberated by zoning and credit policies that are skewed in favor of those who are allready quite comfortable and not in need of help. Wealthy citizens are rewarded for owning more homes than could possibly ever use. "Conservative" politicians are largely to blame for this , just as they were in the 20's. Class Warfare is a one sided battle, the poor lose every time. Unless we have politicians who value education and enhancing middle and lower class buying power rather than aiding Wall Street Speculators and International Hedge Funds (do you really believe that such parasites are actually producing wealth in relation to their unsustainable levels of compensation?) the United States will continue its slide from the greatest nation in the History of the World to a pathetic shell of her former greatness. In a nut shell, we must trade in the misguided Adam Smith philosophies we have been using for 30 years (that are destroying our economy)for the Hamiltonian policies that built us to greatness and have been foolishly abandoned to benefit a few at the expense of the many
Anonymous says:
Mar 21, 2009 07:26 PM
See, the cost of "basic necessities" is primarily a function of labor. It takes a certain number of hours of labor to build a house; some other amount of labor to grow wheat and bake bread.

The simple fact is that one worker can produce far more than one worker's worth of these basic necessities. In fact, the improved availability of advanced but inexpensive technology (nail guns, composite materials such as oriented strand board, GPS-directed tractors, soil-chemistry test kits) has multiplied the productivity of an individual worker over the years. Today, the labor of just one semi-skilled worker can support three to five people. A hundred years ago, that fundamental ratio was more on the order of 2:1.

The other components in the cost of food and housing (raw materials, tools, transportation, etc.) have actually declined over time relative to labor costs, again because of technology, so they aren't the problem.

What IS the problem is that the government inflates the effective cost of labor to an employer by 2:1 or more by imposing minimum-wage laws, pointless record-keeping requirements, ineffective safety rules, and other regulations that are intended to "protect" workers but actually act to waste most of their productivity.

I strongly support the principle behind occupational safety rules, for example, but OSHA now wastes far more human life than the workplace safety hazards it was meant to alleviate. And OSHA is just one bureaucracy; there are hundreds more at all levels of government. Indeed, the bureaucrats themselves are victims; every person whose life is devoted to creating or enforcing counterproductive regulations is a person whose life has been wasted.

And then on top of these cost increases, personal and corporate taxation makes it more difficult for workers and business owners alike to hang on to whatever profits they can earn, and further increases the cost of goods and services.

I also take issue with your comments about "class warfare". The standard of living for the wealthy hasn't improved much in the last 100 years. Good food today is much like the good food from 100 years ago. Similarly, there haven't been dramatic improvements in the effective quality of homes, vehicles, clothing, and so on. Some things are better (travel, communications, entertainment, medical care), but these have improved for everyone.

There's one major way in which the lives of the moderately wealthy aren't quite as easy as they used to be: it's become impractical for the merely well-to-do to have personal servants on the scale that used to be commonplace in the early 20th century, when even a middle-class family could have live-in cooks and maids. Today, someone in the US has to be earning several hundred thousand dollars a year to consider hiring a live-in servant. A hundred years ago, someone with an equivalent income would likely have had a butler, a maid, a cook, and a chauffeur; such a person would never have had to dress themselves, cook for themselves, or drive themselves to work.

It has _always_ been true, throughout history, that when a free society becomes wealthier, the poor benefit more than the rich. A hundred years ago, many citizens of the United States were, in effect, slaves-- servants, miners, field workers, or others who had little or no free time, no ability to change jobs, little access to education or medical care, and no ability to lift their own children out of poverty (if they were even allowed to have children).

Today, almost everyone in the US lives better than the working class did 100 years ago. There are exceptions, but there will always be exceptions. Since the 1960s we've seen a hundredfold increase in government spending meant to eliminate homelessness and hunger (more than that, really, from the first billion spent on Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty through the multi-hundred-billion-dollar programs of today), but with almost no effect. Clearly, money can't solve that problem, and in fact, I believe the facts show that money merely makes the problem worse.

Anonymous says:
Mar 26, 2009 01:37 PM
"Today, almost everyone in the US lives better than the working class did 100 years ago."

I'm sure that has nothing to do with minimum wage laws or other social safety nets.
Anonymous says:
Apr 04, 2009 01:05 AM
It's the ease and luxury of life under a dirty tarp in a garbage dump that causes homelessness. Couldn't possibly have anything to do with grotesquely overvalued housing...
Anonymous says:
Jul 24, 2009 11:34 AM
     The term 'bad decisions' leads me to believe that this writer may be a Reaganite, for which the discussion of political 'shared responsibility' would be an outmoded concept. Reagan posited that governments duty was to provide necessary services and NOT to share personal responsibility, thereby freeing politics from solving personal problems which had historically led to inappropriate and unfeasible communalism. Try to keep up.
     Homelessness is a natural side-effect of a migrant laborforce, which is a primary and necessary element in any capitalistic society. In this structure, all labor forces are expected to migrate in order to fully realize their maximum value, or did you skip Econ101. The failing of a capitalistic society comes when taxation does not fofill basic services. Capitalism is strained when this taxation provides something other than basic services, and caring for those that cannot care for themselves is a basic service. Assuming that people do not want to take care of themselves is randomly stupid.
     Accepting our responsibility for supporting a capitalistic society warrants our duty to support this population in whatever capacity they need, aka sewage and crime abatement. Basic Services: emphasis on Basic. Using this discussion to warrant a cushy government job postulating on social inadaquacies is my idea of the worst form of fraud, taking advantage of poor people. This population supports a necessary element of a capitalistic society and some responsiblity falls to all citizens that want to capitalize without reciprocating, ignorance is not an alibi. Then there is the theft, from budget-politicians that pocket rather than function.
Anonymous says:
Dec 16, 2010 06:47 PM
Our correspondent Peter is obsessed with minimum wage and productivity.
The cost of labour is only one factor in the price of goods and services
and since these costs determine the cost of living, a more meaningful
measure is a "living wage". When a person's income is insufficient to provide for basic human needs and comforts(shelter, clothing,food, warmth,health care, security of person and possessions) then obviously
productivity suffers. I live in Victoria, B.C., Canada, and we have the most temperate climate in Canada. Like Coos Bay, Oregon our economy used to be resource based, but our governments mismanaged the fisheries by allowing fish farms which damaged wild stocks, and permitting overfishing by foreign fleets; they permitted the export of raw logs leading to the closing of pulp and saw-mills. Having thus gutted the industrial base they proceeded to gentrify the remaining affordable housing areas and created a new marginalized homeless
population. With the shift from a production economy to a .com one,
coupled with the recessions of the '80's and 2008-2009, people have been pouring into the Vancouver and Victoria areas like they did into California in the "dirty '30's". Our politicians feign surprise that people are sleeping in doorways in Dec. Our cost of living in Victoria
is the 5th highest in Canada behind Vancouver(4th); our minimum wage at $4/hr is the lowest in the land. Add to that the mild climate that attracts people who are adrift and the lack of political will to act and you have the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country.
There is a bright spot in this gloomy scenario: This year(2010) the city of New Westminster, B.C. enacted a "living wage" by-law of just under $17/hr applied to all public works sector and related jobs, union or not. ACORN Canada is behind this initiative which actually started in the U.S. It should be patently obvious to the most casual observer that a person who earns enough to afford the basic necessities will perform more productively at work, but this simple reality seems to escape Peter who might benefit from a spell of living in shelters or "rough", spending his days trudging from soup kitchen to welfare office to menial job agencies to medical clinics and being harassed by police, only to repeat this day after day; I wager that after several days his smugness would be diminished.
Minimum wage has to be considered in conjunction with a living wage,
indexed to the cost of living and standard of living in the community.
Finally "The greatness of a society can be judged by how it treats it's weakest and most vulnerable"
I recommend that our correspondent read "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus: " Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." It is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
Anonymous says:
Dec 16, 2010 09:42 PM
I wrote that the minimum wage in British Columbia is $4/hr; that was a synaptic lapse; it is $8/hr, still the lowest in Canada. But no-one yelled B.S. What, don't you people read this stuff?
Anonymous says:
Mar 24, 2009 09:34 AM
I remember my friend's father who said that he was able to pull himself up by his bootstraps and so could anyone who wanted to. I was 14 (this was 51 years ago), but I asked him what do you pull yourself up by if you're barefoot. He told me I had a lot to learn, as if my question was based on ignorance, not my memory of my mother being out of work with six kids.

Many people believe that those in trouble are there because of laziness, addiction, or simply poor choices, and certainly, poor choices have been made and the disease of addiction has made victims of many, but most of what is called "laziness" is the result of an overwhelming apathy brought about by hopelessness, by low self-esteem, by failure, by hunger, by the inability to figure out the rules of the game.

My friend's father and Peter's solution is to have the poor work where safety isn't monitored (too bad we don't have diamond mines in the US), to work as servants to the wealthy, or simply to work for less than minimum wage if you don't come up to someone's notion of good enough to get minimum wage, even though minimum wage won't provide even enough to rent a single room and buy groceries, let alone pay utilities, take care of a child or replace worn clothing. The arrogance of such over-simplification is mind-boggling, and the image of a woman whose RV is being towed off made me cry.

I'm grateful to have my social security and a nice little house, but my two extra bedrooms are occupied by people who can't afford to rent or buy a place of their own. I don't know what solution there is, but it isn't to lower safety standards or lower minimum wage. Maybe the solution is to share more and condemn less - or maybe it's to put people to work helping other people.
Anonymous says:
Mar 31, 2009 02:51 PM
Peter: I have been meaning to respond, I assure you that I understand how wealth is created, it is created by productive citizens(derivatives traders produce NOTHING). The problem is that the financial sectors (ESPECIALLY International hedge funds, and investment banks) of our society produce little or nothing of value, yet recieve astronomical compensation. This has a far more inflationary effect on the economy than the minimum wage issue that you seem to be obsessed with. I suggest that you learn a bit more about Alexander Hamilton and the American System of Economics before you attempt to teach the rest of us. Hamilton was a conservative, perhaps even a Tory. However he outlined a system that rewarded long term healthy investment and discouraged speculation. This is the system that we used to create the greatest Industrial Economy in history. Those of us who think they know better than Hamilton, have convinced people like you that his ideas were at best outdated or at worst socialist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unforunately for our great republic, Hamilton's model has been neglected in favor of the "free trade/globalist" model that has driven our economy to the brink of absolute disaster. People making minimum wage have absolutely nothing to do with this. People making vast fortunes for producing nothing of value ARE to blame, if they are not put in check soon, our future prosperity, if not the very sovereignty of our nation are at risk. Phil Gramm pushed repeal of Glass/Steagle back in the late '90s. Bill Clinton made the mistake of signing off on this terrible idea, allowing banks and financial institutions to grow beyond the "too big to fail" level. The Federal bank bailout is being used as leverage by the larger firms to destroy their smaller more sensibly sized competitors. This is the opposite of what we should be doing. We would be better off chopping up the larger institutions into easier to manage pieces. So that it would not be such a disaster if some were to fail, that is not going to happen as long as the giant banks are allowed to make their own rules, and run the economy for their own selfish non productive interests. Bottom line, we must go back to the Hamilton model which tends to make credit more difficult for speculators, while making it more easily available to farmers, factories, higher education and public infrastructure. This tends to improve the buying power of average people (remember the middle class?), it will encourage a rebuilding of our industrial capacity and most importantly increase the supply of manufacured goods(this increase in SUPPLY eases inflationary pressures better than raising interest rates!) Of course there is major opposition to this by those who are riding high on the hog under the current system, and would gladly sacrifice the long term health of our country for short term profit. I don't know where you studied economics, but obviously you are unaware of the superiority of Hamilton's ideas compared to lesser minds like Adam Smith. So instead of bashing the unfortunate minimum wage earner, join us in taking back control of our economy from the greed heads who are destroying it......so that America can again be an example of the right way to run an economy rather than allowing the over paid idiots to run us into the ground as they have been allowed to recently
Anonymous says:
Apr 03, 2009 07:41 PM
I am sorry guys, but I disagree with so many of you. I am 50 now. I had a heart attack 4 months ago and my company laid me off 2 months ago. While I am not homeless now, I soon might be. But i was homeless, years ago. I worked hard to get the heck out of that situation and I have done very well since then. But due to the Socialism that America is being subjected to, I firmly believe that our new administration and the Democrats as a whole, as an agenda and this is part of it.
We are no longer going to be America with a dream. We will be of a welfare society. Especially when we go to a global currency and we let non Americans start dictating social laws.
What better way to build a voter base than to support through welfare and other hand out programs the very people that need it? The more poor people you have the bigger the voter base.
Anonymous says:
Apr 04, 2009 07:23 PM
So, your heart attack, probably not fully covered due to chintzy health care, then being laid off, probably because your boss didn't want to pay your high health insurance premiums after the heart attack, is due to socialism?

If you are homeless, maybe the tinfoil hat will keep your head warm.
Anonymous says:
Apr 05, 2009 09:45 AM
Thank you for your warm response. First I was trying to relate to the fact that I have been homeless and may be again. But if you choose to ignore the overwhelming end to American Capitalism and welcome in the Socialist state, then you are part of the problem. I for one, do not want to live in Government built projects.
Anonymous says:
Apr 06, 2009 03:16 PM
I notice that the last three comments to this article were deleted, I do hope that they are restored.... Respectfully , Adam Guilford HCN subscriber
Anonymous says:
Apr 06, 2009 03:25 PM

Sorry about that. Chalk it up to human error (mine) combined with a technical glitch. Thus far, I have not been able to recover the lost comments... they seem to have disappeared into a cyber black hole. I hope you'll keep commenting, anyway. I'll do my best not to disappear any more valid comments.

Jonathan Thompson, editor
Anonymous says:
Apr 06, 2009 03:32 PM
No problem... just wanted to know what happenned, I do hope you can adjust your system so that it is easier to get through security, it makes us enter a code three times before allowing a post, demanding a new code each time, can you set it up so that we can get through security a little easier?
Anonymous says:
Apr 16, 2009 01:26 PM
I am desperately searching out GMO'ed bug-free potatoes, squash, cabbage, carrots, beets, onions, turnips, cumbers, parsnips, peas, beans, sweet-potatoes, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, corn, cauliflower, - for my Shanty-Town survival garden. I can no longer afford chemical fertilizers and have resorted to composting and humanure, I have poor, drought prone, stony, soil and little running water for irrigation, so drought resistance is also important. A bit of frost resistance might help too, as spring nights shorten season here. If, by some magic, things could be made to grow a little faster than usual, and a little bigger than normal, I will have more to eat and preserve for the colder months. I see no harm in paying a little more for these improvements in seeds. In this great republican depression we must take all the help we can just to get by! Once I am able to find work again, I will buy at the supermarket like other folks, for now, this is my plight. Please advertise, let me and my fellow survivors (I am not alone!) know where to get the new miracle seeds in packets we can afford - we need them just to eat! Times will change, and, for another generation, life will be good again! The powers that be have had their feed of human flesh, and will go back to their holes for feasting at another time. For now, myself, my neighbors, and a large flock of "Newbies" coming in daily, toil at part-time, occasional work, salvaging, and farming veggie plots on soil we don't own while to rest of the world moves on, but hope reigns eternal, we brew a bit of hooch,smoke some weed if we can find it, and try to stay out of sight until we are found dead on our cots - that's all we ask for our silent suffering, justified or not. America is great. But leaves it's poor, old, and disabled here in Shanty-Town, to care for one-another. Pity!