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

Page 4

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."

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