“On the highways the people moved like ants and searched for work, for food. And the anger began to ferment. . . . In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” (The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939)
“What goes around comes around. . . . The Grapes of Wrath is a prophetic novel, rooted in the economic and environmental tragedies of the Great Depression, but speaking just as directly to the harsh realities of our own time. At this moment of global economic meltdown, . . . when groups are in migration from one kind of tyranny or another, when the gap between rich and poor seems insurmountable, and when homelessness and dispossession caused by widespread financial failure and mortgage foreclosure is rapidly rising in the US and elsewhere – symbolised by shantytowns and tent cities on the outskirts of major metropolitan areas – then it is fitting to think of The Grapes of Wrath as our contemporary narrative, our 21st Century jeremiad.” (“Grapes of Wrath, a classic for today?” BBC, 2009)
“I feel the outlook for a decent-paying job, or any job, is growing quite dim. . . . We have been truly wronged by the greed of many, the lack of good stewardship of our government . . . . Corporate America no longer represents American interests . . . . This country was built on the people’s strength to revolutionize against those who wrong us, and soon this may be necessary again. Class war has begun.” (Comment by AlterNet reader, Sue Oelkers, 2009)
Seventy years ago, John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, a novel about desperate lives of the American underclass during the Great Depression. The story concerns the exodus of Okie families who stuffed themselves and all their worldly possessions into jalopies to migrate across the country in hopes of finding work in the agricultural fields of California, the Promised Land. I remember reading the novel on one of those warm afternoons during my college years, when I had escaped from a stuffy classroom on campus and driven my ’55 Chevy convertible down Sunset Blvd. to the beach. Poignant as the story was, and artfully told, it nevertheless felt alien to me, as if it were about another country long ago, rather than my own California just a few years before I was born. But now, in the sunset of my life, as I re-read the The Grapes of Wrath, I realize that it is as much about today and tomorrow as yesterday, and it is about my country and my California.
A few miles from my brother’s neat little bungalow in Ontario, California is this tent city, where people from America’s underclass live desperate lives. Laid off from their jobs, foreclosed from their homes, evicted from their apartments, estranged from their relatives and friends, they’re camped out and played out in this vacant lot in “The Golden State.” If it’s like this just a year into the “recession” here in the Promised Land, what’s it like elsewhere across the country? And what’s it going to be like a year from now, when there is no longer any doubt that America is experiencing its Second Great Depression? And what will it be like as the Depression deepens, year after year?
I foresee a ragged army of the homeless, encamped in hundreds of tent cities, thousands of them, along highways, under bridges, in parks and vacant lots, surrounding abandoned shopping malls, all across this land. Leaders will emerge, to demand shelter, food, and water for their people. Local authorities and vigilantes will push back. There will be ugly incidents. Anger will ferment. The Grapes of Wrath will grow heavy.
[Updates follow, the latest at end of page.]
UPDATE, March 23, 2009: As the comment from Mike indicates, local police have visited the tent city in Ontario, California to eject campers from other communities. Meanwhile, Reuters reports that in Sacramento, “The mayor of California’s state capital unveiled plans . . . to shut down a sprawling ‘tent city’ of the homeless that has drawn worldwide media attention as a symbol of U.S. economic decline.”
UPDATE, March 26, 2009: The New York Times reports, “new tent cities have taken root — or grown from smaller enclaves of the homeless as more people lose jobs and housing — in such disparate places as Nashville, Olympia,Wash., and St. Petersburg, Fla.” The focus of the article is two encampments in Fresno, California.
UPDATE, May 8, 2009: “In the past year, there’s been an 18 percent increase in homeless students attending schools in the United States,” reports central Florida’s WFTV. In Orange County, “the number of homeless students increased . . . from 1,750 last year to more than 2,500 students this year.”
UPDATE, June 4, 2009: LA’s Homeless Blog reports that “there are now reportedly over 70,000 people living on the streets of Los Angeles County . . . . Nationally, the National Alliance to End Homelessness lists some sad statistics:
* 1 in 50 children in America are homeless.
* 1.5 million children are homeless each year.
* Of the 2.3 to 3.5 million Americans who are homeless each year (not a point in time number but throughout the year), 34% are families.
And the 11 worst states are the following (in order): Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Nevada, North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, and California.”
UPDATE, August 12, 2009: The Wall Street Journal reports on “homeless camps” around the U.S. “Nashville, with help from local nonprofits, is now servicing a tent city, arranging for portable toilets, trash pickup, a mobile medical van and visits from social workers. Volunteers bring in firewood for the camp’s 60 or so dwellers. . . . In Florida, Hillsborough County plans to consider a proposal Tuesday by Catholic Charities to run an emergency tent city in Tampa for more than 200 people. . . . Ontario, a city of 175,000 residents about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, provides guards and basic city services for a tent city on public land. A church in Lacey, Wash., near the state capital of Olympia, recently started a homeless camp in its parking lot after the city changed local ordinances to permit it. The City Council in Ventura, Calif., last month revised its laws to permit sleeping in cars overnight in some areas. City Manager Rick Cole said most of the car campers are temporarily unemployed, ‘and in this economy, temporary can go on a long time.’ . . . After years of enforcing a tough anticamping law to break up homeless clusters, Sacramento recently formed a task force to look into designating homeless tracts because shelters are overflowing. One refuge in the California capital, St. John’s Shelter for Women and Children, is turning away about 350 people a night, compared with 25 two years ago . . . . New York City officials last month shut down a tent city on a vacant lot in East Harlem. It was erected partly as shelter and partly to campaign for more-affordable housing. Seattle authorities have repeatedly booted off public land a tent city that popped up last year. Anticipating Tuesday’s vote on the homeless proposal in Tampa, hundreds of neighbors in a nearby 325-house subdivision have formed the ‘Stop Tent City’ coalition. . . .”
UPDATE, November 14, 2009: The UK’s Guardian reports, “A United Nations special investigator . . . has accused the American government of pouring billions of dollars into rescuing banks and big business while treating as ‘invisible’ a deepening homeless crisis. Raquel Rolnik, the UN special rapporteur for the right to adequate housing, who has just completed a seven-city tour of America, said it was shameful that a country as wealthy as the US was not spending more money on lifting its citizens out of homelessness and substandard, overcrowded housing.” The article notes that “the US government does not tally the numbers but interested organisations say that more than 3 million people were homeless at some point over the past year. The fastest growing segment of the homeless population is families with children, often single parents. On any given night in Los Angeles, about 17,000 parents and children are homeless. . . . Los Angeles, which is described as the homeless capital of America, has endured an 18-fold increase in housing foreclosures. Evictions from owned and rented homes have risen about tenfold, with 62,400 people forced out last year in Los Angeles county. . . . Rolnik has given a verbal report to the US state department, which has a month to respond to her observations. She will submit a final written report to the UN human rights council early next year.”
UPDATE, November 28, 2009: A lawsuit in Boise, Idaho claims that the city is “violating the constitutional rights of chronically homeless people” when its police officers “issue camping citations to homeless residents for sleeping, sitting or talking with friends in public places — activities non-homeless residents have the freedom to engage in without fear of police interference.” Reportedly, as many as 4,500 are homeless in the state’s capital city, which has shelter space for only about 700. Similar lawsuits on behalf of the homeless have been filed in cities all across the nation, including Dallas, Texas, St. Petersburg, Florida, Portland, Oregon, and Sacramento, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and Laguna Beach, California. The Guardian quotes a retired University of California law professor: “There is a predictable path for those who lose their jobs and can’t pay the rent or the mortgage. First they live with friends and relatives, but they’re poor, too. Then they live in their cars until the cars get towed or break down. Some live in tents. Almost all the camping grounds within 100 miles of Los Angeles are now filled with people living in them.”
UPDATE, January 11, 2010: “A Fighter for the Homeless Runs Afoul of the Law” is the title of an article in the New York Times about Dan de Vaul, a rancher near San Luis Obispo, California. “For nearly a decade, Mr. de Vaul has been housing dozens of homeless men and women in a farmhouse and a collection of tents, trailers and sheds spread around his 72-acre ranch here on the outskirts of this city in central California. Mr. de Vaul says he is simply doing the work his county cannot or will not do. But officials say that the housing at Mr. de Vaul’s ranch, known as Sunny Acres, is substandard, often illegal, and rife with dangerous code violations, including missing fire detectors and faulty wiring. Now Mr. de Vaul faces possible jail time, and his activities are sharply dividing residents of San Luis Obispo and the surrounding county, even as the county’s surging homeless population — estimated to be 3,800 people — outstrips the capacity of its shelters, which have about 125 beds. The feud reached a boiling point in recent weeks after Mr. de Vaul’s conviction in November on two misdemeanors related to code violations . . . Mr. de Vaul refused a deal for probation and has since been sentenced to 90 days in jail and fined $1,000 by a judge, who called Mr. de Vaul’s behavior ‘irresponsible and arrogant.’ Mr. de Vaul is one of a handful of people who have taken the problem of homelessness into their own hands in California, often running afoul of officials. Last summer, the police disbanded an encampment in Sacramento pitched with the permission of a private property owner, while in Loomis, Calif., a couple was cited in November for allowing a homeless family to park in a lot the couple owned.”
UPDATE, February 16, 2010: Huffington Post reports, “Homelessness in rural and suburban America is straining shelters this winter as the economy founders and joblessness hovers near double digits -– a ‘perfect storm of foreclosures, unemployment and a shortage of affordable housing,’ in one official’s eyes. . . . The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual survey last year found homelessness remained steady at about 1.6 million people, but the percentage of rural or suburban homelessness rose from 23 percent to 32 percent. The 2009 HUD report, which reflected the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2008, also found the number of sheltered homeless families grew from about 473,000 to 517,000.”
UPDATE, March 16, 2010: “Sacramento Homeless Problem Persists” reads the headline of another Huffington Post report. “It’s been a year since a tent city in Sacramento gained national media attention. Though the area that housed these tents has been fenced off, and the families moved, the problem may only have compounded. . . . Families have been forced out of their homes . . . . An estimated 2,800 people are homeless in Sacramento, and a growing number in this statistic are families and couples that formerly identified as middle class.”
UPDATE, March 21, 2010: The New York Times reports that “the number of people living on New York’s streets and subways soared 34 percent in a year, signaling a setback in one of the city’s most intractable problems. . . . The city’s annual tally indicated an additional 783 homeless people on the streets and in the subway system, for a total of 3,111, up from 2,328 last year. That is in addition to almost 38,000 people living in shelters, which is near the city’s high. . . . New York officials said the city still had a relatively small population of homeless people on the streets when compared with other large American cities. There is one homeless person for every 2,688 people in the general New York population, compared with 1 in 154 for Los Angeles, 1 in 1,810 for Chicago and 1 in 1,844 for Washington.”
UPDATE, July 4, 2010: “Huge tent city takes root,” reads the headline in the Honolulu Star Advertiser. “Pastor Joe Hunkin picked his way around rusted car axles, propane tanks and two-by-fours studded with bent nails to find a homeless encampment where people have been cooking and sleeping directly behind Waipahu High School . . . . Hunkin walked past a pit bull puppy and peered over a makeshift shelter of tents and tarp hidden by koa haole and elephant grass . . . an enormous homeless encampment that stretches five miles over approximately 50 acres of city, Navy and state land that serpentines around Waipio Point Access Road, the Ted Makalena Golf Course and the city’s Waipio Soccer Complex and back down to Pearl City in the opposite direction . . . . Doran J. Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, believes more and more homeless encampments like the one behind Waipahu High School are springing up on Oahu as Honolulu police and city officials continue to push Oahu’s homeless off of beaches and out of city parks. ‘I don’t know why it would surprise anyone that they’ve found these places,’ Porter said. ‘You get kicked out of one place, you have to find somewhere else to survive the night. And now their desperation is starting to show.’”
UPDATE, February 17, 2013: CNN reports that “Throughout the U.S. homelessness continues to be a national problem…. National statistics on homeless are staggering with data suggesting over 1.5 million Americans use a shelter or transitional housing during the year. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates nearly 700,000 Americans experience homelessness on any given night in the U.S.” Shamefully, “cities all over the country have worked to essentially criminalize homelessness,” reports AlterNet in an article entitled “10 Unbelievably Sh**ty Things America Does to Homeless People.” Click here to read the article for details, but here’s the list:
1. Outlawing sitting down
2. Denying people access to shelters
3. Making it illegal to give people food
4. Installing obstacles to prevent sleeping or sitting
5. Anti-panhandling laws [to punish those who ask]
6. Anti-panhandling laws to punish people who give
7. Feeding panhandling meters instead of panhandlers
8. Selective enforcement of laws like jaywalking and loitering
9. Destroying possessions of the homeless
10. Kicking homeless kids out of school