Tarp Nation

by Scott Bransford

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."

Framed within a backdrop of faded industrial buildings and rusty water towers, Taco Flat looks like a relic of some 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, whether in the form of ever-faster Internet connections or the accelerating spread of big-box stores and single-family homes.

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," said Lynch, 50. "I remember my grandparents and my dad talking about labor camps, and going town to town to work."

The folks who linger around Lynch's dwelling have a spectral resemblance to yesteryear's harvest gypsies. Their faces are drawn and sunken, pale as rock cocaine, twisted with coughs that suggest malnourishment. There's a soup kitchen called the Pov on the other side of the railroad tracks, but pride keeps some people from crossing over, and so does a rampant fear of muggings and stabbings.

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

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

Don Harmon, a carpenter, used to raise frames on commercial sites throughout Northern California. But last July, when all the building halted, he couldn't make his rent, and he ended up in Taco Flat with his 2-year-old son.

Like most of the stories one hears in tent cities, Harmon's would be hard to authenticate. But as he spoke, he held out his hands as if to prove his honesty. They were as worn-out as an old union membership card.

"I'm unemployed right now," said Harmon, his voice rising, "but I guarantee you these hands will work.  I will tear my hands up working, you know, to make sure my kid's gonna have what he's gotta have."

Tent cities have much in common with the squatter camps of the Great Depression, but to simply call them Hoover-villes 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 land occupation, makeshift construction and a 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, a professor at the MIT Institute of Urban Studies and Planning, said there's a real 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 said. Informal urbanism also thrives wherever people face exclusion from the mainstream markets for work and shelter, he added, whether 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 immigration raids increase, the act of signing a lease has become more risky, prompting many to forego formal housing altogether.

Undocumented workers are also plagued by low wages, which aren't keeping pace with the rising costs of housing. In Fresno, fair market rents went up 52 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Now, the typical two-bedroom apartment costs $805 a month, far out of the reach of workers like 21-year-old Juan Garcia, who came from Mexico.

This hardship has only been exacerbated by disappearing jobs in the Central Valley, where an ongoing drought is turning some of the world's most fertile farmland into a desert. This year, the region's water districts are expecting deep cuts to water deliveries –– anywhere from 85 to 100 percent. Job losses could total 95,000 statewide, resulting in up to $2.8 billion in lost income, according to Richard Howitt, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis.

That has left workers like Garcia 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 said. "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, said Mehrotra, and it often leaves squatter camps on the brink of ruin.

"You are always on the edge of demolition," Mehrotra said. "There's a kind of insecurity in the lack of tenure on the land."

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 in the process. 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.

Hundreds of miles to the 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 oddly reminiscent of the region's grid of warehouses, rail yards and sprawling truck lots.

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 Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization Director.

Schultz said local officials would rather see Ontario as an economic engine, and they were disturbed to find out that it was becoming a magnet for the dispossessed.

"We're not," Schultz said, "going to be a repository for a region's homeless."

Rather than simply bulldoze the makeshift neighborhood, Ontario officials embarked on a $3 million 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 special I.D.s 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 late January, the population was less than 50.

"It's like a prison," said 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 the fear of robbery or violence.

"Some people come up here and say, it looks like a concentration camp, but they don't live here," said 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.

Linda Parker, 59, couldn't get a camp I.D. card, so for a while she tried living in an RV down the street from the tent city, parking it next to a mechanic's shop. Yet in January, police officers towed it away, charging her with unauthorized camping. Parker, a widow who suffers from debilitating asthma and incontinence, had no idea where she would go next.

"All they do is take from you and take from you until you have nothing," she said, through tears as a tow truck pulled her RV into the distance.

For Americans throughout the 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 are increasingly 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 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 lengthy process of building low-income apartment complexes and homeless shelters.

That possibility is already taking shape in Portland, Ore., 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 sod-walled security post, residents find a balance between the human needs for safety and personal freedom. They're required to do at least 10 hours of community service per week, such as helping newcomers build or remodel homes, but otherwise they set their own schedules.

"This isn't a flophouse," said Joe Palinkas, 55, a resident who runs the village Web site.  "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.

This potential is turning into a reality in Seattle, Wash., and the surrounding suburbs, where tent cities have galvanized a social protest movement calling for more affordable housing and better services for the homeless.

There, organizations such as SHARE/WHEEL and Veterans for Peace have banded together with churches to establish a roving network of tent cities that take Dignity Village as their inspiration. Residents hold elections for managerial positions, work out disagreements at nightly meetings, and come together regularly for communal meals.

In camps such as Seattle's Nickelsville, named after Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, residents share a sense of camaraderie rather than the rampant mistrust found in Taco Flat.  Bruce Beavers, 47, who recently lost his Washington state home to foreclosure, said this is crucial to people who are trying to work their way back into jobs and the mainstream housing market.

"It helps build your self-esteem back," said Beavers.  "You're getting your mind back so you can go out and take interviews."

Leaders in California's Central Valley might do well to listen to Beavers. 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 homeless czar, says tent cities aren't part of the picture.

"A Dignity Village for us is not the best course of action," said Barfield. "We've got to find out a way to move forward with housing people. That's what our homeless are asking for and that's what our businesses are asking for."

But such plans mean 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 small tent and his tarp. He still has the strength to keep his place clean, but his frame is nearly skeletal, his clothes growing loose around him.

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

© High Country News