No Joy in Hooverville

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Inter Press Service

No Joy in Hooverville

Heike Barkawitz

Robert Scott Cook walks his dog through the tent city that sprung up next to the homeless shelter in downtown Reno, Nev., on June 25, 2008. (SCOTT SADY/AP FILE PHOTO)

NEW YORK - With a massive spike
in the number of foreclosures and evictions over the past two years,
communities throughout the U.S. have witnessed the sprouting of tent
cities -- many of them home to once middle-class citizens fallen victim
to the economic downturn.

Encampments have formed in or near
large urban areas including Reno, Los Angeles, Chattanooga, Columbus,
St. Petersburg, Seattle and Portland.

"[Starting] about four years ago, there has been an outbreak
of tent cities popping up across the country. Today, we observe a slow
but steady increase in homeless people," Michael Stoops, acting
executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCFTH),
told IPS.

According to a report by NCFTH, almost 61 percent of local and
state homeless coalitions say that they have seen a growth in
homelessness since the foreclosure crisis -- now at 10,000 homes per
week -- began in 2007.

The phenomenon is similar to the social upheavals of the Great
Depression of the 1930s -- an era frequently referenced these days --
when "Hooverville" ad-hoc shanty towns, some as big as 15,000 people,
were erected around the country, named after the president at the time,
Herbert Hoover.

Scott, a resident of the tent city in Los Angeles, told a
television reporter, "I had one of those escalating, finance-charge,
balloon-things that steps up every year and the payment just got too
much so that I couldn't afford it anymore. I tried to work with the
bank and they worked with me, gave me some extra time, but it's just
getting too big. So they foreclosed."

Many residents of tent cities share Scott's fate. One woman
told BBC that she used to live in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house.
When her husband fell ill, it became impossible to make ends meet.

"We have a lot of grandkids, too. They used to always come
over and stay. They don't come here anymore, I don't want them to come
here. We go there and see them at their house," she said. She and her
husband now live in a mobile home at a camp.

Most tent cities have a community-spirit and are
self-regulated, said Stoops, who has visited many of the encampments.
"In most tent cities, there are certain rules -- like for instance no
drugs, no alcohol and no violence," he told IPS.

He and his organisation supported the formation of tent
cities. "[They] are of course not the solution, but necessary until
adequate shelters and housing are found," he added.

"The tent city in St. Petersburg, Florida, is even supported
by the government and some local, non-profit organisations provide
support for tent cities across the country," Stoops said.

Jeremy Rosen, executive director of the National Policy and Advocacy
Council on Homelessness (NPACH), expected a mild growth in the number
of tent cities in the future due to the weak economy. "On the other
hand, I suspect we'll see a definite rise in homelessness," he told

According to a document published by NPACH, the U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) definition of
homelessness "does not include children and families who have lost
their homes but are temporarily staying in motels or with other people
because other shelter is not available or appropriate."

These families have often lost their homes due to an event
like eviction, foreclosure or a family crisis, but cannot find
available and appropriate shelter.

"They become the 'hidden homeless', moving around from place
to place -- sleeping in cars, on couches, sometimes in shelters,
sometimes with friends and sometimes with family. Unfortunately, our
country chooses to deny this reality and doesn't define many of these
people as homeless," Rosen told IPS.

There are an estimated 600,000 children and youths who are
considered homeless by other agencies, but not by HUD. "More than 60
percent of the homeless students identified by public schools are
ineligible for HUD Homeless Assistance," the NPACH's report states.

"During the last seven years, we have seen homelessness
increase. This is due to, for example, hurricanes or the unofficial
economic recession with a foreclosure crisis," Stoops told IPS. "A
month ago, over 900,000 homes were foreclosed and some of the people
concerned will wind up homeless."

While "there exists more [government] sympathy for banks and
people on Wall Street", he wryly added that "the capitalist society
will allow even those people to wind up homeless."

In Chicago, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has taken unusual
action and announced last week that he was suspending all foreclosure

"The move comes as a result of the growing number of evictions
that involve renters, most of whom are dutifully paying their rent
every month, only to later learn their landlord has fallen behind on
mortgage payments and the building has gone into foreclosure,"
Spokesman Steve Patterson told IPS.

"These mortgage companies only see pieces of paper, not
people, and don't care who's in the building. They simply want their
money and don't care who gets hurt along the way," Dart said in an

Dart wants mortgage companies to be forced to provide
sufficient information to the Sheriff's Office in order to conduct an

According to a press release by the Cook County Sheriff's
Office, foreclosure filings have steadily climbed in Cook County since
1999. In just two years, the number of foreclosure evictions has almost

The data firm RealtyTrac recently published a report stating that
foreclosures were at an unparalleled high nationally, filings were up
nearly 100 percent from a year ago and officials estimate that
approximately half a million people could lose their homes as
adjustable mortgage rates rise over the next two years. Many of those
affected might eventually end up homeless, seeking help in a tent city
or elsewhere.

As there are not nearly enough shelter beds for all the
homeless people in the U.S., Stoops appealed for government compassion,
saying that "every city should have one park or another space where
homeless people are allowed to erect their tents."

"It is hard for homeless people to set up a homeless campsite
because cops come and make them move on. The most recent count from the
government, which is from 2005, says that 44 percent of the nation's
homeless are unsheltered," he said.


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