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the Times Online (UK)

Sacramento Tent City Is Just One of Dozens in an Ailing America

Mike Harvey

For years, police and park rangers have engaged in a kind of a chess game with the hundreds of Sacramento homeless people who live outdoors. The authorities send them packing, only to see them return eventually. (RANDALL BENTON)

Across America, from Washington State to Nevada, Georgia and even Florida, homeless advocacy groups and city agencies are reporting the biggest rise in homeless encampments in a generation, as the US economy takes a spectacular plunge.

Last week Michelle Obama served mushroom risotto to homeless diners at a shelter in Washington. "We are facing tough times in this country," the First Lady said. "There is a moment in time when each and every one of us needs a helping hand."

The economic figures behind her call for community action have been relentless. The recession, which began as a crisis of homeowners unable to pay their mortgages but has spread to every part of the economy, took away 650,000 Americans' jobs for a record third straight month in February as unemployment climbed to a 25-year peak of 8.1 per cent. Around 12.5 million people are looking for work - more than the population of the state of Pennsylvania. No one is immune: the jobless rate for college graduates has hit its highest point.

The result is a proliferation of tent cities, such as the one in Sacramento. While it is the best-known shantytown in America - thanks mostly to an Oprah Winfrey special on the "new faces of the homeless" last month - it is only one of dozens. California, with its milder weather, has always attracted its fair share of people living on the streets. But the Golden State is being hit hard by the recession. In February it had the highest number of repossession filings - 80,775 - of anywhere in the US, up 51 per cent in a year according to the website RealtyTrac. Auction sale notices almost tripled to 18,831.

The relatively smart city of Santa Barbara has given over a car park to people who sleep in cars and vans, and authorities in Fresno are trying to manage several proliferating tent cities, including an encampment where people have made shelters out of scrap wood.

For the city authorities, strapped for cash and making deep cuts to staff and budgets themselves, the homelessness problem is not a priority. But as more people pitch their tents the pressure to do something other than just turn a blind eye is mounting.

President Obama's recovery and reinvestment plan is now beginning to be set in motion. His plan to stop repossessions by aggressive restructuring of existing mortgages would allow up to nine million people to avoid losing their homes. Most of the stimulus effect, however, will not be felt for months.

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