Where previously only a few dozen homeless people lived, several hundred have now taken up residence since the start of the economic crisis – in a tent city near Los Angeles.
In Ontario, a wealthy suburb east of Los Angeles, you won’t find any signs of the financial crisis. The boulevard medians are planted with palm trees and acacias, and the streets are dotted with manicured offices and rows of shops. Airliners take off for Asian destinations from the glass and steel international air terminal. But just a few hundred meters from the glistening world of global travel live American citizens who have already suffered a crash landing.
Here, on a dusty lot between the old San Joaquin Valley railroad tracks and the air terminal warehouses, several hundred people settled down more than a year ago in a tent city similar to those one finds with increasing frequency on the outskirts of many large American urban centers. It’s a community of the old and unfortunate mixed with the young and newly fallen who involuntarily band together near a few portable toilets and church-sponsored soup kitchens. This emergency community tries its best to retain a sense of the old order: on the left side of the street, those who have yet to achieve the American dream live in donated pup tents behind barbed wire. On the right side of the street, those who were so recently part of the middle class live in shabby mobile homes.
In what passes for the community’s finer quarter, a few men sit on plastic chairs under a shade tree. They talk about the weather and the food; there’s not much else to talk about. They’re not keen on entertaining visitors. “We’re not sideshow exhibits here,” one grumbles. A few of them disappear into their trailers, the last refuge for their civil dignity. Some of them say we might as well go to hell, there’s nothing else for us to do.
Armando and Jim come from Ontario and wear an orange plastic armband signifying they are locals. They quietly ask if anyone has read the article about them published in the local newspaper. Some of them have relatives and children in the area who don’t know where they’re now living. Explaining it all to them would be too painful, too complicated, too something. They don’t know how to come to terms with it themselves.
Randy and Kim wear blue armbands signifying they’re from outside Ontario. They came here several months ago from neighboring Nevada. They’re actually not supposed to be living here. Ontario’s Sheriff recently announced that they had to leave – the influx was just too much. Since the tent city grew last year so dramatically, from a few dozen to more than 400 homeless, Ontario will only be able to care for its own from now on.
The city issued everyone here laminated plastic identity cards. Only those who have one are allowed into the compound. A patrol car makes several passes every hour, and a burly policeman asks strangers what business they have there. Armando cautiously says, “They don’t exactly help us much.” Kim grumbles, “Electricity or running water – nada.” But it’s not cool to complain here.
The Sheriff runs a tight ship. Last fall, no one was allowed to leave the compound after 10 p.m., for a while, and the toilets were locked down until there were too many complaints. Armando has been living here since October in a dusty camper van. The father of four used to be a real estate agent. Then came divorce; most recently he worked as a truck driver and finally, after his social security number was stolen, the debts piled up and the bank repossessed his house and he was forcibly evicted.
Kim from Nevada lost his job as a trucker at age 64 when he broke his arm. Too old and too expensive, his boss told him. The debts, the mortgage, the repossession and the eviction – the journey to Ontario’s tent city only took a few weeks for him. He used to have a nice house in Reno, he said. Now, his trailer stands next to one in which a family of four lives. The mother there still has a job, and she brings the children from tent city to school every morning. When she sees her neighbor being interviewed, she quietly closes the car door behind her.
The men try to persuade themselves that they’ll be leaving here soon. Right now, they’re living on welfare or social security checks of just a few hundred dollars. Of course, we’ll find good jobs again as soon as the crisis is over, they all say. Only Randy, who suffered a stroke a year ago and is partially paralyzed, says nothing. He slowly shrugs his shoulders. “The American dream,” he then says, as well as his paralysis allows. “I, I was a dream for America. I served twenty years in the U.S. Army and now they only pay me a lousy pension.” He looks like he wants to say more, but then he just turns away.
All four quickly depart at the sound of a horn. Calls of “feeding time” can be heard from several directions in tent city. A church charity comes once a day, bringing meals in styrofoam boxes. Trailer doors and tent flaps open and men, women, children, young and old quietly line up to be fed.
Meanwhile, Manassas is a historical town a few thousand kilometers further east in the exurbs of the nation’s capital. It’s the site of summer festivals where costumed groups reenact historic battles. The city of 35,000 advertises auctions of repossessed homes at bargain-basement prices in nearby Washington. “From $1,000 down,” the ads promise. The next auction will take place this coming Monday, when well over 1,000 homes repossessed by various banks will be sold, many starting at $30,000. They were previously inhabited by young families and pensioners, predominantly Latinos, hopeful immigrants from Central America who bought their piece of unlimited American opportunity on credit.
Susan Jacobs of the Assist-2-Sell real estate agency drives her company car through a neighborhood of Manassas where entire streets already stand empty from evictions. The sportily elegant woman in her late fifties was crowned “top sales agent” for 2007 in Prince George County. These days, she has a lot of what she laughingly calls “free time.” In Georgetown, she stops in front of a brick home built in the sixties: “Solid construction, three rooms, kitchen, two baths, nothing extraordinary, but two years ago it sold for $300,000. Today, one real estate crisis later, you can get it for $60,000,” she says. She finds the numerous empty houses in the neighborhood depressing. “They also depress the value of the homes people are staying in,” she adds.
The crisis is a double-whammy because, as is normal in the United States, those communities that have no major industries depend on personal property and real estate taxes for their income. Larry Hughes, Manassas city treasurer, is hardly able to keep up with his red pencil. He has reduced his previous 12 municipal departments to 8, laying off 80 employees, and he’s now considering closing some schools. “No more money,” he says abruptly. “And we’re not in the poverty-stricken Midwest, we’re in the Washington exurbs.” Hughes shakes his head and says, “And we’ll have to wait months for Obama’s bailout money; that’s far too slow.”
Back when Susan Jacobs was selling houses for no money down, her appointment calendar was overflowing. Young families in the booming capital area, with good jobs and believing in a secure future, bought, bought, bought. The credit crisis primarily affected new immigrants who streamed into predominantly white, conservative Manassas. The brick home Susan showed me earlier is owned by just such a family who now find themselves unable to pay their numerous loans for house, cars, television sets and schools. “It’s the same old same old,” Susan says. Where do the families go after they’ve been evicted from their homes? Susan says she doesn’t really know. “Probably to live with relatives,” she guesses. “There are too many depressing stories,” she says. They soon all begin sounding alike.