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In Sacramento's tent city, a torn economic fabric

A tattered encampment of 200 men and women along the American River is a vivid symbol of a financial crisis otherwise invisible to most Americans. Officials say they will shut it down within a month.

March 20, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga

SACRAMENTO — The capital's tent city sprawls messily on a grassed-over landfill beneath power lines, home to some 200 men and women with nowhere else to go. It has been here for more than a year, but in the last three weeks it has transformed into a vivid symbol of a financial crisis otherwise invisible to most Americans.

The Depression had Hoovervilles. The energy crisis had snaking gas lines. The state's droughts have empty reservoirs and brown lawns. But today's deep recession is largely about disappearing wealth -- painful, yes, but difficult to see.

Then this tattered encampment along the American River began showing up on Oprah Winfrey, Al Jazeera and other news outlets around the world. On Thursday, city officials announced that they will shut it down within a month.

"We're finding other places to go," said Steven Maviglio, a spokesman for Sacramento's mayor. The camp is "not safe. It's not humane. But we're not going in with a bulldozer."

The ragtag community captured the collective imagination through a powerful combination of geography, celebrity and journalistic convenience.

"This is the state capital of the seventh-largest economy in the world, with a movie-star governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and an NBA pro athlete for a new mayor, Kevin Johnson," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. And the camp "is a wonderful visual for TV journalists."

On a recent chilly morning in the tent city, it is not yet sunrise. A Fox News van is parked nearby. A flashlight illuminates the inside of a dome tent. Traffic whines along the adjacent freeway. Cats criss-cross the encampment, eyes glowing.

As the sky slowly lightens, shadowy figures emerge and head for the bushes along the riverbank. There are no portable toilets. The dumpster is a new arrival, a donation that followed the flood of news reports.

Jim Gibson heads to a neighboring tent, where two of his friends -- an unemployed car salesman married to a onetime truck driver -- are brewing coffee on a propane stove.

Gibson looks like anybody's sunburned suburban dad, all jeans, polar fleece and sleepy eyes, his neatly trimmed hair covered by a ball cap. Seven months ago, the 50-year-old contractor had a job and an apartment in Sacramento. Today, he struggles to stay clean and fed.

A former owner of the American dream, he is living the American nightmare.

In 2004, Gibson was a semi-retired San Jose homeowner, who got bored and wanted to go back to work. Five years, two houses and four layoffs later, the widower and grandfather says he is "trying to survive and look for work. The only work I've found is holding an advertising sign on a street corner."

Survival is the biggest time-filler here. Tents must be shored up against wind and rain. The schedule for meals, clothing giveaways and shower times at local agencies must be strictly followed.

CeCe Walker, 48, is just back from coffee, breakfast and a shower at Maryhouse, a daytime shelter for women. She has lugged a bag of ice for half a mile and cleans out a cooler with "Hobo Fridge" written on the side in thick black marker.

"I've never camped in my life," she says, sorting through supplies damp from yesterday's melted ice. "This will make you old. I don't see how people want to live out here forever. God!"

The tent city sprawls along the river in small clusters of ersatz neighborhoods. Walker and her neighbor, Charly Hine, 38, have pitched their tents at the distant edge to stay away from noise and trouble.

Gibson's tent is in a separate, small, neat grouping. One neighbor displays an American flag and a goose with the word "welcome" on its breast. It is a favorite subject, its owner says, of news photographers. Another has a mailbox and a gate.

The largest and most raucous neighborhood is composed of about 70 tents closest to the street.

Near noon, Tammie and Keith Day are drinking beer around a cold fire pit, worrying about how she'll get her diabetes medication and fretting about whether officials will shutter the tent city.

"We're homeless and being evicted?" Tammie fumes. "Now I've heard everything."

Keith has rheumatoid arthritis. Tammie says they both battle mental illness and alcoholism. Soon, they are in a screaming fight, hurling epithets and bricks at each other. The bricks, at least, miss their marks.

One downside to all the media attention, Tammie says before the brawl, is that her family no longer pays for her prescription. They have seen the news. Her brother is "disgusted." And her mother "doesn't even talk to me now."

But an upside rolls up the dusty path about 3:30: a white Toyota pickup from the Florin Worship Center, with volunteers distributing dinner -- pasta, potatoes and eggs scrambled together, beans. A maroon Ford Expedition is next, with free tents. A Roseville handyman arrives with firewood.

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