Ten blocks south of Fresno, Calif.'s downtown area, past the crumbling theater and the rusty train yard, a series of lots filled with abandoned shacks sit vacant and quiet. Cars rumble by on the overpass. Fencing and barbed wire keep out unwelcome visitors. Inside, a guard keeps watch over abandoned personal effects. It's a desolate scene, but for Fresno, it is a symbol of success.
Just weeks ago, this was the site of the city's sprawling tent cities, a haven where Fresno's homeless population had for decades lived inside walls made of scrap metal and roofs made of plastic sheeting. Now, it is empty, its main tent city dismantled and nearly all of its 130 residents transferred into private apartments and motel rooms.
It's a rare bright spot in an otherwise bleak time for this city of 450,000, which has been hit especially hard by the twin economic disasters ravaging the San Joaquin Valley: a foreclosure epidemic that prompted a sharp decline in construction work and a water crisis that has left the county's westernmost towns on the brink of collapse. Even before the recession, Fresno had the highest concentration of poverty in the nation, according to a 2008 report from the Brookings Institution. Ironically, it may be the recession that prompted a change in fortune for tent-city residents. Although many had lived there for years, a wave of media attention in recent months produced just the right mix of funding, initiative, and public pressure needed to finally address one of Fresno's most delicate dilemmas.
The question is whether it can last. Studies consistently show that a "housing first" approach saves money in the long run, by trimming costs like ambulance runs and police forces, and equipping the homeless with tools that keep them from landing on the streets again (jobs, health care, stable relationships, etc.). But it's an expensive proposition up front. The newly housed residents are paying the city 30 percent of their income, whatever it may be. The city dug into its own coffers to finance the first housing shift, but that was made possible by the $3.1 million federal grant Fresno is receiving as part of HUD's $1.5 billion homelessness-prevention initiative. That money is expected to last four to six months. After that? Greg Barfield, the municipal official in charge of the tent city closure, hopes enough people will benefit from the leg up that they won't rely on city funding anymore.
State budget cuts will likely make those funds even tougher to access, since they'll delete money from cities' general and redevelopment funds. Local officials throughout California are scrambling to figure out how big the hit is going to be. Still, Barfield thinks he has enough to both sustain the existing housing and continue to target smaller satellite encampments. "You lose some [through] the state cuts, but it's offset by the stimulus money," he says. "So instead of being two steps ahead, you're half a step ahead. But still, that's better than a step behind, which is what we'd been."
The future is murkier further north in Sacramento, which became a flashpoint for the country's homelessness saga when a camera crew from The Oprah Winfrey Show arrived in February. "I find that shocking," Winfrey declared after watching footage of newly homeless families living in tents along the American River. It was only part of the story—the tent city had existed for years, mostly occupied by the chronically homeless—but a barrage of reporters and cameras, eager to compare the current economic crisis to the Great Depression, descended upon the tents, focusing enough attention on the encampment that the city moved in to clear it out in April.
But while Sacramento has its own 10-year plan, it is ill-equipped to handle the influx this summer. Of the 150 or so tent-city residents evicted in April, nearly 100 are still on the street. Most were directed to temporary shelters, which were already filled to capacity in a county where 1,200 people sleep outside on any given night. The Cal Expo fairground, which serves as a homeless shelter in the winter, extended its months of operation, but it too closed down for budgetary reasons in June. With nowhere else to go, small groups have simply banded together and pitched their tents elsewhere, finding safety in numbers. The city wasn't looking the other way anymore; at one point, the same group of about 100 campers was dispersed five times in a little over a week. But with no short-term housing solutions available, they say, they have to sleep somewhere, and they'll keep finding new spots.
Advocates are trying to get the city to legalize the tent cities, until officials can come up with a better solution. "Camping is the alternative to sleeping on the doorstep of a business. Of course housing would be better, but we can't wait 10 years for that," says Forrest Reed, a program director at Francis House, which sees 30,000 people come through its doors each year. Sacramento's mayor, Kevin Johnson, says he is "inclined to support" the idea, at least in theory. But he remains noncommittal. A task force put together in March is still considering the public safety and sanitation ramifications of a legalized tent community.
Gary Blasi, who studies homelessness issues at UCLA, is not convinced. Ideas like this have been tried in the past, he says, notably in Los Angeles in the 1980s, when an "urban campground" set up in a dirt lot in an industrial area of town quickly went from being treated as a temporary solution to being treated as a permanent one. "It won't be a refuge, it'll be a trap," he says. "I understand why it would seem like an attractive option. It's not like you're thinking about how to swim to the island when you're struggling just to keep your head above water."
For the moment, the national media's infatuation with the tent cities seems to have passed. "The media who came through here all wanted to talk to someone who lost a home on Monday night and ended up in the dirt on Tuesday," says Barfield, the Fresno homelessness chief. "Sure, you may find someone. But you miss the story. The safety net that should have caught a lot of these folks has been cut with the budget, or just didn't exist to begin with." A crushing series of losses, not just a foreclosure, is what lands a person at the end of the line, he adds. People are more vulnerable to those losses, as unemployment continues to rise, the state cuts services, and more and more people slip into the ranks of the working poor. The pill is especially hard to swallow in an area in which thousands of foreclosed homes are currently vacant.
There's some reason for optimism. Paul Stack, who works near Fresno's tent city site at Poverello House, a temporary shelter which provides meals, shelter, and other services, says this is the first time in his 14 years in the valley that he can recall a concerted effort to get Fresno's sizeable homeless community into housing, rather than chasing them away. "They were running around here all happy, swinging their keys around, showing 'em off," he says. "Ear-to-ear grins." Advocates just hope the disadvantaged citizens will have reason to smile a year from now, and even further down the road.
Learn more about the troubled San Joaquin Valley in NEWSWEEK's Special Report: "The Valley of Shadows."