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"People Shouldn't Have to Live Like This": The Real Story Behind "Tent City" -- and How the Media Get It Wrong

The media have finally discovered homelessness. Not surprisingly, they get the story wrong.

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Two volunteers from a local ministry who regularly hand out donated clothing and basic necessities to the area's homeless population say the city should turn this area into a KOA-like campground with running water, toilets and a centralized kitchen. They didn't want to give their names because they don't trust the media.

"The media treat these people like they're packs of wolves. They're people. Just like you and me. If you want to take photos, please ask first. We've seen reporters shove their cameras in tents without asking. I know Oprah had good in her heart, but she's created a problem. Because of the exposure, the city will shut this down. These people have no home. Look at this guy. He's building a community."   

They were referring to Baldy, a 38-year-old wearing blue-and-white plaid flannel pajama bottoms and a blue sweatshirt. His medium-sized tent sits behind a thin metal fence he built shortly after arriving six months ago. Since then, he's compiled everything from a welcome rug to a new spice rack.

"We share everything and look out for each other," he says. A recovering drug addict, Baldy says he's trying to find a job, but without a phone number or an address, it's close to impossible. "They [potential employers] say, 'Don't contact us. We'll contact you.' How are they going to contact me? After trying and trying and getting shot down, you just want to lay in bed. Then you get depressed. Then you turn to drugs. I try to keep myself motivated. My plan is to get out, but I need a job first." 

The majority of the people I met say they're trying to find work. Brian, a fortysomething with a baby on the way, says when he and his wife set up their tent last year, they had three neighbors. Now they have about 30.

"We need jobs. I like to work. I can't get a job because I have a record. I want to get out of this. It's hard. They just turn me down. I'm always riding on that bike like I got a job." 

Jan Hair, who served in the Air Force from 1981 to 1984, says if she could make tent city her temporary home, she's certain she would find a job and save enough for an apartment.

"I'm tired of being forced to move from place to place," she says. "When you're forced to move, you lose all of your possessions and your identification. You can't get a job without an ID card."  

This week, Hair has no choice but to move again. If she and the others refuse, they could face arrest.

Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mayor Johnson approved an $880,000 plan to provide both immediate and longer-term shelter. They're adding beds to Sacramento's shelters, which are currently filled to capacity and have lengthy waiting lists. City officials say over the next few months they will also offer rental apartments to approximately 40 people.

"I give Mayor Johnson great credit for being willing to tackle a situation that is difficult," says Joan Burke. "They have come up with some partial solutions, but most of them are short term. We need solutions not just for the 200 or so in tent city, but for everyone." 

Once tent city is cleared out, Burke fears that the media will move on. Hoping to keep the story on the radar screen, Loaves & Fishes is holding a Safe Ground Rally on the Capitol Steps on April 21 to call for a self-governed location where the homeless can camp legally with access to basic needs such as running water, toilets, and trash cans.

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