The economic spiral has seen the birth of a disconcerting social experiment. Tent cities, first on the West Coast and now in the East, are testing a new model for dealing with recession-era homelessness.
Concentrated in urban areas, these communities have in some cases been embraced by local government as a stop-gap measure for the housing crisis.
Perhaps nowhere has the tent city made more news than in Sacramento where an encampment’s population peaked last year at around 200. Maybe it’s because it’s the backyard of the Governator and a former NBA star-turned-mayor, but Governor Schwarzenegger and Mayor Kevin Johnson quickly dealt with their tent city after it was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Rather than tear it down, as had been the protocol with similar tent cities in years past, Schwarzenegger and Johnson moved the encampment from an ad-hoc site to the local fairgrounds which, according to the Governor, provided “dry shelter, reliable health care, and warm meals.”
Other tent cities have emerged in Florida, where unemployment hovers around 9.6 percent. One in St. Petersburg on land owned by the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg houses hundreds along with a dining hall, bathrooms and showers, and computers to help residents find a job.
In Ontario, a once-thriving southern California suburb, a tent city established two years ago has seen its population grow to over 400 people. Rather than dismantle the city completely, local government has placed restrictions on the community, making it open only to current or one-time residents of Ontario.
Though tent cities mark an unsettling new iteration in American poverty, they will inevitably be starting organically in more places if the economy stays sour. With some government backing, however, they’ll hopefully allow some residents to get back on their feet.