Thursday, March 26, 2009

Shantytowns making a comeback

Tents under an overpass in a Fresno rail yard. Homelessness in Fresno has long been fed by the ups and downs in seasonal and subsistence jobs in agriculture, but the recession has cast a wider net and drawn hundreds of newly homeless, from hitchhikers to truck drivers to electricians. Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times.

This is from The New York Times:

FRESNO, Calif. — As the operations manager of an outreach center for the homeless here, Paul Stack is used to seeing people down on their luck. What he had never seen before was people living in tents and lean-tos on the railroad lot across from the center.

“They just popped up about 18 months ago,” Mr. Stack said. “One day it was empty. The next day, there were people living there.”

Like a dozen or so other cities across the nation, Fresno is dealing with an unhappy déjà vu: the arrival of modern-day Hoovervilles, illegal encampments of homeless people that are reminiscent, on a far smaller scale, of Depression-era shantytowns. At his news conference on Tuesday night, President Obama was asked directly about the tent cities and responded by saying that it was “not acceptable for children and families to be without a roof over their heads in a country as wealthy as ours.”

While encampments and street living have always been a part of the landscape in big cities like Los Angeles and New York, these new tent cities have taken root — or grown from smaller enclaves of the homeless as more people lose jobs and housing — in such disparate places as Nashville, Olympia, Wash., and St. Petersburg, Fla.

In Seattle, homeless residents in the city’s 100-person encampment call it Nickelsville, an unflattering reference to the mayor, Greg Nickels. A tent city in Sacramento prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to announce a plan Wednesday to shift the entire 125-person encampment to a nearby fairground. That came after a recent visit by “The Oprah Winfrey Show” set off such a news media stampede that some fed-up homeless people complained of overexposure and said they just wanted to be left alone.

The problem in Fresno is different in that it is both chronic and largely outside the national limelight. Homelessness here has long been fed by the ups and downs in seasonal and subsistence jobs in agriculture, but now the recession has cast a wider net and drawn in hundreds of the newly homeless — from hitchhikers to truck drivers to electricians.

“These are able-bodied folks that did day labor, at minimum wage or better, who were previously able to house themselves based on their income,” said Michael Stoops, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group based in Washington.

The surging number of homeless people in Fresno, a city of 500,000 people, has been a surprise. City officials say they have three major encampments near downtown and smaller settlements along two highways. All told, as many 2,000 people are homeless here, according to Gregory Barfield, the city’s homeless prevention and policy manager, who said that drug use, prostitution and violence were all too common in the encampments.

“That’s all part of that underground economy,” Mr. Barfield said. “It’s what happens when a person is trying to survive.”

He said the city planned to begin “triage” on the encampments in the next several weeks, to determine how many people needed services and permanent housing. “We’re treating it like any other disaster area,” Mr. Barfield said.

Reading this story certainly reminds me of the Hoovervilles during the 1930s Depression-era, although Atrios calls them Bushvilles. I could probably speculate as to why these new shantytowns are popping up--increased unemployment, people losing homes, retirement funds being wiped out, loss of health care, and so on. In reality, Americans are living in a survival mode here. And the shantytowns are the lowest level of survival mode here, where Americans have lost everything and are now living as homeless in tents, or rickety shacks. These new "Bushvilles" are economic disaster areas.


nunya said...

Maybe some of the corporate property management companies have something to do with this?

I watched the rents double in less than 7 years in an apt complex I lived in. The rents are not coming down.

Eric A Hopp said...

Hello Nunya, and thank you for your comment. Looking at your profile, it says that you live in San Diego. I'm not surprised that rents have doubled in San Diego in less than 7 years--rents are pretty high even where I live in San Jose, CA. Rents are certainly not going to drop in CA--not with the still-high housing prices that has affected our state. Yes, I know housing prices have dropped somewhat in CA, but they are still in the stratosphere here in the Bay Area.

I'm guessing that, as more people lose their jobs, they can't afford to pay for their homes--either mortgage, or rent--and are being evicted, or foreclosed. The longer term unemployed have probably exhausted whatever savings they may have had, including retirement funds. With the job market still crappy, to the point where minimum wage jobs are competitive, more Americans are ending up in these tent cities. It is looking more like a depression, rather than a serious recession.

I don't know whether the property management companies have something to do with this or not. I'm sure the property management companies of apartment complexes want paying tenants, and those who couldn't pay due to job losses will certainly be facing evictions. If there is rent control, and the property management companies could evict such tenants who were paying rent control prices, then the companies could increase their rents to reflect market prices. But there is more here. We're seeing some serious structural problems within the U.S. economy--the housing bust, mortgage foreclosures, the financial meltdown, rising unemployment, and reduced demand by American consumers who don't have the money to spend their way out of this economy. So there is a ripple effect taking place within the entire U.S. economy here, and it is interconnecting with all of these problems that we're facing. It is certainly connecting with you, having watched rents double in your area. As more Americans are facing the financial pressures of this economic downturn, we're going to see even more of these shantydowns come up in our cities.

nunya said...

"I'm sure the property management companies of apartment complexes want paying tenants, "

Unh huh, and they want to pay the shareholders. The rents doubled during the housing bubble, and there were three property management companies during that time.

Military housing allotments and wage standards couldn't keep up.

Part of the inflation in the housing market in CA can be blamed squarely on proposition 13 that passed in 1978.