What Kind of Year It’s Been

Posted June 19, 2008 in Feature Story

History is rarely written by the poor, and never by the homeless. Who would want to read a document so grim? History is written by the winners—people who almost by definition have homes and in whose accounts the poor and homeless seldom appear. 


For an example of this principle in action, log onto any one of the Internet’s many aerial imaging sites and type in the address “600 S. Cucamonga Ave., Ontario, CA.” Chances are you’ll come to an image, taken in October, of an empty field populated by some scattered trees and a single rectangular building in the northeastern corner. What you won’t see in the image are the rows and rows of government-issued tents, port-a-potties and shower stalls that make up “Tent City”—the makeshift settlement of hundreds of homeless men and women that has stood at the location since July, 2007. Scan up and down the area at the highest magnification and you still won’t find it: For now, at least, it’s as if Tent City doesn’t exist. 


Only it does. 


Times are tough in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where the median home price has dropped an average of $115,000 from a year ago, where one of out every two homes sold involves a foreclosed property. But as bad as things are for the average Inland resident, it’s nothing compared to the pain being felt by the region’s estimated 52,000 families who live below the poverty line. The IE’s most underprivileged residents—the homeless, the hopelessly unemployed and unemployable, and the ever-increasing ranks of the working poor—are experiencing a level of suffering not seen in the region since the Great Depression. 


The cost of basic needs such as food, gas and utilities is skyrocketing. Unemployment is at 7.1%, exceeding the national level by nearly two percentage points. The wholesale collapse of property values has failed to significantly reduce the cost of rent and slowed charitable contributions to a trickle as upper- and middle-class Americans struggle to deal with a sudden $1.7 trillion devaluation of net worth.


“An important thing to remember is when middle class begins hurting because of difficulties in the economy, the poor are devastated,” says Ken Sawa, CEO of Catholic Charities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. “When middle-class families are starting to clip coupons and cutting back on vacations, the poor are absolutely suffering because there is no fat to trim. We’re seeing this in our centers every day:  Families are doing everything to keep themselves and their families in a home, to keep their children fed.”


Catholic Charities is San Bernardino and Riverside counties’ No. 1 referred-to agency for emergency material aid. It provides basic services—everything from food distribution, housing and utility assistance and clothing to transportation and funeral arrangements—to some 20,000 families in the IE every year. But with an estimated 20%-25% increase in requests for help over the past 18 months, it isn’t enough.


Officials with the organization speak of basic needs going unmet, of families being torn apart, of children going hungry. Domestic violence born out of frustration and despair is on the rise, as is poor-on-poor and even middle class-on-poor crime.


“Our agency gets over 400 to 500 calls a day for food and utilities, rental assistance and especially food assistance,” says Beverly Earl, Catholic Charities’ San Bernardino County director of community and emergency services department. “We do provide food services, but we run out also. When we run out, we tell them, ‘you’ve got to try the Salvation Army or the community centers.’ But the other agencies are struggling to keep resources available, too.


“Now I have a person on the other end of the phone saying, ‘I’m trying to get some food here for when my kids come home from school, so they’ll have something to eat,’” Earl says. “At school, the kids will get some nutrition—maybe a couple of small meals—but there’s nothing at home.”


Earl says her organization has seen a dramatic increase in rental scams, where the owners of homes in foreclosure will sublet rooms to struggling families. She sees such crimes as acts of desperation in themselves. 


“The owners will tell a family of five, ‘Give me money and you can live here, so you can get your utilities paid for and everything,’” she says. “Then, within 15 days, the mortgage company comes and hangs a sign on the door and tells the family, ‘You’re here illegally.’ The poor are ripping off the poor, the middle-income are scamming off the lower income. We’re seeing this every week now, when we never saw that before. This is a major problem.”


What happens to the family next, after their last dollar has been ripped off and they’re suddenly without a roof over their heads? Earl says that depends on what support network they may—or may not—have. They may wind up living temporarily with family or friends. Often, the husband will give up and abandon his wife and kids, figuring they’re better off without him. 


Or they wind up on the streets or in places like Tent City. But to live in Tent City means to give up the children, because under the rules set by Ontario officials, Tent City doesn’t permit kids. 


“They’re not allowed here because of the environment,” says Brian Thompson, 23, who has lived in the homeless encampment with his mother and brother for nearly a year. “This really isn’t a place where you want kids to be.”


Tent City, otherwise known as the Ontario Temporary Homeless Services Area, was born in July when about two dozen homeless people set up pup tents and cardboard shacks on a dusty parcel of land near Ontario International Airport. Ontario officials, faced with the choice of removing the squatters or lend a hand, chose to do the latter by organizing multi-agency support for the camp. Police directed the homeless to the area, while city and county workers and charitable groups provided meals and services to the occupants. The innovative program was presented to nervous residents as a temporary regional experiment, a genuine attempt to deal with the problem of homelessness instead of just ignoring it. And it was. 


But as well intentioned as Ontario City Hall’s efforts were, Tent City quickly became an object lesson in why so many municipalities prefer to ignore its homeless situation. There’s just no money in it—no political capital to be earned, no clear path to a lasting solution to the problem. Tent City became a magnet for homeless people across the region—they came and settled both in the officially sanctioned area and in the fields around it. Soon the population swelled to more than 400. Nearby residents and business owners complained bitterly that such a large homeless presence was lowering property values and driving away customers. City officials responded to the complaints by establishing more and more rules—no kids, no visitors, no unregulated food distributors, etc.—and by clearing out the homeless who had set up in the nearby fields. Only those homeless issued ID cards were allowed to stay.   


Soon, the most vocal critics were the homeless themselves. 


“It sucks, actually,” says Brian, adding that he and his family were just told they had to move out because they refused to get rid of two kittens. “This is how we were woken up this morning, before 8AM:  Bang! Bang! Bang! ‘Get up! Get up! Code enforcement!’ They wanted to look in the tents to see if we had anything we weren’t supposed to.”


“Sometimes we get parole officers in here doing sweeps,” adds Brian’s mother, Sharon Thompson, 52. “We’re not even second-class citizens—we’re, like, fifth-class citizens.”


The Thompson’s and other Tent City residents say that since the city cracked down on people bringing food to the camp, meals have dropped from three a day to one, maybe two on a good day. A man who describes himself only as “Lil’ Joe” says City Hall’s decision to chop down or severely prune trees on the lot left residents exposed to the summer heat. 


“It’s maybe 85, 86 degrees today, right?” he says. “Inside those tents, it’s at least 100 degrees—it’s sweltering. We lost two people last week—Charlie and Debbie. They were pretty old—Charlie was in a wheelchair—and they were put out in the sun and they died. It’s good that we have this place and everything, but why did they cut down those trees? Why did they put us inside a fence?” 


Not all the Tent City residents are complaining. Several interviewed for this story say they appreciate the city’s efforts to help them get back on their feet.


“The way I see it, this is a chance for me to better myself,” says a middle-aged Latino man, who asked not to be identified. The man, sitting with Brian Thompson and others in the shade of one of Tent City’s few remaining trees, says he became homeless when a rent hike forced him and his daughter out of the apartment they shared. 


“I’m on a fixed income, so I’m trying to save up enough money to find an apartment,” he says. “It’s a little uncomfortable here, yes, but hopefully in a couple of months I’ll be out of here.”


Brian cuts in, insisting that he’d get out too if there were jobs available. “But there aren’t any jobs out there—I’ve looked,” he says. “Even if I found one, what am I supposed to put down as my address? This place?”


The man says nothing. He has a plan, and that’s the best that he can do under the circumstances.


On the opposite side of the camp, Rachelle Thompson (not related to Brian and Sharon) hangs her freshly washed laundry on the fence that separates Tent City from a row of railroad tracks. Thomson, 34, says she became homeless a year ago after losing her job. She says she has a plan, too.


“Hopefully, I’m leaving here Monday,” she says. “I’m not sure, but hopefully. I need to get out of this place—I have really bad diabetes. The doctors put me on disability, but it takes five months to process. What are we supposed to do in the meantime?”


She says she’s been living in Tent City since March, when her then-boyfriend drove her there and abandoned her. Life here, she says, is especially hard for single women. 


“No one’s bothered me yet, but I’m here by myself,” she says, hanging her shirts on the fence to dry not 20 feet from the spot where—according to Lil’ Joe—two elderly residents died a week earlier. “Before I came here, I told myself I would never live in Tent City. Now, here I am.”


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