The road to Tent City

May 5, 2009

John Green visits Tent City under a freeway in Fresno, Calif.--and finds a very different picture than the mainstream media paints.

THE LOCAL paper describes this place as "ground zero" for robbery, prostitution and intravenous drug abuse in Fresno, Calif., and that's enough to put outsiders on edge, walking alone into Tent City.

But spend an afternoon with the hundreds of homeless in this bleak, dusty strip of land under a freeway, and a different story emerges: Of winners and losers in the busted economy, and of the bonds of solidarity between everyday people.

One of the first people you'll likely to meet near the entrance is Arnold. He's a 40-year-old Latino who lives with his dog in a tattered navy blue tent.

In between cooking lunch over an open fire, he explained his journey to Tent City. "I was working at the Radisson Hotel, as a dishwasher," he says. "I became unemployed and homeless. When it started to rain, I saw people going here. I asked if I could come, too."

A few feet away a thin, tow-headed adolescent named Lee lives in the shadow--and roar--of Highway 41. He could pass for a high school sophomore.

So why here, of all places? "I like it here, because people look over you--make sure nobody messes with you or your stuff," Lee says.

Fresno's Tent City has filled up over the past year with both the chronically homeless and recent victims of economic crisis
Fresno's Tent City has filled up over the past year with both the chronically homeless and recent victims of economic crisis (John Green | SW)

He's homeless because of "family problems," and leaves it at that. But like nearly everyone else at Tent City who chose to share their story, Lee has found a community of sorts here that contradicts the media picture of a hovel fraught with dangers.

No doubt, though, Tent City is a miserable place to call "home" in the world's richest country.

California has been hit hard by the economic crisis, and its largest inland city is no exception. In March, the state's unemployment rate crept up again--to 11.2 percent, almost a third higher than the national average.

At a press conference that same month, Ebony reporter Kevin Chappell asked President Obama a pointed question about a report that claims 1 in 50 children now live homeless. "I'm heartbroken that any child in America is homeless," responded Obama. "The most important thing I can do on their behalf is make sure their parents have a job."

Back in Tent City, Freddie underscored this point. "I was a forklift operator, but I haven't found work for years," the 44-year-old told me. "My daughter lives nearby and helps me out, but I wish we had a bus come and pick us up and take us to work. People here want to work. They want to work for a place of their own."

What you can do

The Fresno Alliance, a social justice group, has organized multiple protests to put homeless people front and center in the fight for their dignity and rights. Find out more at the group's Web site.

The crisis swelling the ranks of the homeless has done one small thing for people like Freddie. The stream of stores going belly up has left behind plenty of signs advertising liquidation sales. Some lean-tos here are constructed of discarded "everything must go" signs from Mervyns, Gottschalks and others.

THE MISERABLE experience of seeing Tent City--let alone living there--could easily dim one's faith in humanity. But there's another story here, too.

In a tent covered in flies and chewed through by rats, a woman named Lana sells cigarettes to supplement her food stamps. She came to Fresno with her husband looking for work, and when she found none, she ended up here. "All that you see here was given," she says pointing at her possessions. "We arrived with a piece of tarp and a few clothes."

Her bleak situation, she says, would be worse if not for complete strangers. She rattles off some examples:

-- Each week, a local farmer pulls up with his water truck to provide clean drinking water to all the residents.

Students from the local university come by with carloads of donated clothes and food.

Local residents bring wood for heating and cooking.

Two nearby religious charities provide meals, hot showers and temporary beds--at the cost of some obtrusive proselytizing.

Activism by the Fresno Alliance (and a change in local government) led to a moratorium on evictions while the city belatedly offers housing.

Facing a public outcry, the city of Fresno provided portable toilets, a dumpster and a 24-hour security service.

"We're like a family here," Lana says. "We have our problems and our squabbles, but we look after each other and try to do better."

In stark contrast is the attitude of those with the most to share.

A year ago, when Tent City sprang up, it was on an empty lot adjacent to a set of railroad tracks. Now a shiny metal fence surrounds the property--courtesy of the lot's owners, Union Pacific, who promptly moved to evict the homeless camp through harassment and intimidation.

At one point, say local activists, nearly 500 people lived here, a mix of chronic homeless and newly destitute workers. Union Pacific's harassment--and the warm weather--have reduced the camp's population by half.

Pushing people out of Tent City will only scatter them to different locations. But there is a way to lift them out of poverty altogether. The Workers Economic Recovery Campaign has a 10-point program that addresses the situation here and elsewhere. Among its demands are:

-- Enact a moratorium on home foreclosures, utility shut-offs and evictions.

Enact a massive national reconstruction public works program to employ millions.

Grant living wage benefits to those unable to work.

Tax the corporations and the rich to finance a workers' recovery plan.

The wealth that would be needed to get this underway certainly exists, right in Fresno. This is one of the richest and most productive places in the world. On just 1 percent of America's farmland, California's Central Valley grows 8 percent of the country's agriculture. In 2002 alone, Fresno County made $2.8 billion in agricultural sales.

Fresno's Tent City is a compelling case for Barack Obama to make good on his commitment to end homelessness by putting people back to work. But as long as Wall Street gets the bailouts and ordinary people get the eviction notices, there's no end in sight for the conditions that gave rise to this place.

Further Reading

From the archives