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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.

Over the past few months, reporters from around the world have flocked to the now-famous tent city in Sacramento, Calif. When they find out that 55-year-old John Kraintz has been living in a tent for almost seven years, they turn around and walk away.

"They don't want to talk to me," he says. "They're searching for people who just lost their homes. It's kinda tough to lose a home when you've never owned one. Sorry, but most of the people here have been homeless for a long time."  

A tall and lanky man with a long beard tied in a ponytail, Kraintz is one of 100-200 people who have been told to leave the homeless camp between Sacramento's Blue Diamond Almond factory and the American River.

Kraintz and so many other homeless people like him have been living in scattered Sacramento encampments for years, but they've been largely ignored and hidden from public view. That is, until Lisa Ling, a reporter with the Oprah show, came to town in late February to focus on what Oprah Winfrey called the "new faces" of homelessness.  

The show reported -- inaccurately -- that an estimated 1,200 people in Sacramento are living in tent cities after losing their jobs and homes. According to Loaves & Fishes, a privately funded group that has been feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless in Sacramento for 25 years, 1,226 people live on the streets of the city. Between 100 and 200 temporarily call tent city home.  

Like Oprah, several national and international articles and TV pieces have falsely portrayed everyone in tent city as once-middle-class people driven to homelessness because of the economic meltdown.

"The credit crunch tent city which has returned to haunt America" is the headline of a March 6 piece in the London-based Mail Online. On March 20, the Los Angeles Times ran a piece called "In Sacramento's tent city, a torn economic fabric."   

Joan Burke, Loaves & Fishes' advocacy director, says those headlines are misleading. The majority of Sacramento's homeless population suffer from physical disabilities, mental illness and drug and alcohol addictions.

"The media are trying to capture a very complex situation in a sound bite," she says. "We've had homelessness in this country for decades. Each person has his or her own circumstance, and you have to tease that out if you're going to address this problem. Why do we care so much for people who suffer for a short time versus those who suffer for a long time? What is that about?" 

Over the past few months, Burke has been bombarded with media requests from as far away as Colombia, Hungary, Australia and the Philippines.

On one of the days I was there, I saw a German radio team, reporters from a French magazine and several local TV trucks. The majority of the people I met at tent city say reporters aren't asking the right questions. 

"The other day, I heard a German reporter ask if this is happening because of the recent economic collapse," says Kraintz. "This has been happening for 30 years, but the powers that be have been able to pretend it doesn't exist. Why aren't reporters asking about flat wages, jobs being shipped overseas and the lack of affordable housing?" 

Burke agrees, saying one of the many issues ignored in most articles about tent city and homelessness is the fact that poor people cannot afford housing, especially in an expensive state like California.

"People who are poor end up homeless through no fault of their own, but because people higher up on the food chain have made affordable housing a very scarce commodity," she says. "If we had sound housing policies and programs that helped people when they have a run of bad luck, we would not have a tent city." 

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