"People Shouldn't Have to Live Like This": The Real Story Behind "Tent City" -- and How the Media Get It 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."
Kraintz says he knew the system would finally blow up. It was just a matter of time. The question, according to him, is this: Do the powers that be have the political will to create a fairer, more just economic system?
"I listen to NPR all day. I know what's going on at AIG," he says. "If you're working class, you can't achieve the American Dream. I tried, and look where I am."
Seven years ago, Kraintz had a hard time finding enough construction work to make ends meet. He lost his apartment and has been living in encampments ever since.
Today, he serves on Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson's homelessness task force. At emergency city meetings, he urges officials to make this area a permanent tent city for people who are tired of being forced to move from place to place: "It may look like anarchy out here, but it's peaceful and organic," he says.
The people living in tent city have created what they call self-governed communities.
"Everybody shares the same problems. We are homeless," says 50-year old Frederick Williams. "We live in a field together, so you build camaraderie. As you can see, we've built clusters. Everybody out here knows everyone else. They know a stranger right off the bat."
When I met Williams, he was throwing trash in a dumpster donated by Atlas Dumpster. He stopped what he was doing to show me the GPS bracelet around his ankle. After serving 84 days in jail for drug possession, he says his parole officer dropped him off at tent city because he had nowhere to go.
After an hour of discussing everything from the prison industrial complex and poverty to U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Haiti, I asked him why he doesn't spend more time fighting for the issues he's clearly so passionate about. He's had construction and welding jobs over the years, but says he makes bad choices.
"Believe me. I would raise hell, but addiction is a motherfucker."
While we were chatting, his girlfriend walked over with a plate of hot potatoes, rice, bread and a can of nuts donated by local volunteers. Local groups and individuals stop by throughout the day to donate meals, clothing, basic camping gear, firewood and toiletries.
In the afternoon, Tracy, a 33-year-old who was just laid off from her job as a gourmet food product designer, pulled up in a white Saturn SUV with her 18-month-old baby in the back seat. She got out of the car to hand out two bags of aloe vera gel, sunscreen, lotion, shampoo and conditioner.
"This is disgusting," she says. "People shouldn't have to live like this."
Tracy makes frequent trips to foreclosed homes to pick up items families no longer want. She finds them through Craig's List. She sells what she picks up and uses the money for toiletries. She also picks up donated toothbrushes and toothpaste from dental offices.
"So little goes so far," she says. "I just lost my job. If I can do it, anyone can."
As Tracy drives off, Williams says: "We live in one of the most charitable countries in the world and one of the coldest."
He says tent city would be fully operational if it had a water truck and Porta Potties: "I'd feel a whole lot better and a whole lot more human if I didn't have to go shit in the trees," he says.
Because tent city has no running water or portable toilets, most people walk a mile or so to Loaves & Fishes for a hot shower, a bathroom and a sit-down meal. Along the way, they pass people sleeping on the streets and in abandoned parking lots.
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.
Advocates say Portland, Ore.'s Dignity Village proves the plan would work. Dignity Village is a nonprofit city-sanctioned homeless encampment in Northeast Portland. Most of the 60 or so residents live in small homes built on decks.
"Everybody deserves a simple, safe home of their own," says Burke. "That's what we really need."