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In hard times, nation sees surge in tent encampments

Economic woes fuel rapid rise in homelessness

Mack Martinez, 19, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, sat at the tent city that had risen next to the homeless shelter in Reno in June. He recently found a job. Mack Martinez, 19, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, sat at the tent city that had risen next to the homeless shelter in Reno in June. He recently found a job. (scott sady/Associated Press)
By Evelyn Nieves
Associated Press / September 19, 2008
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RENO - A few tents cropped up by the railroad tracks, pitched by men left with nowhere to go once the emergency winter shelter closed for the summer.

Then others appeared - people who had lost their jobs to the ailing economy, or newcomers who had moved to Reno for work and found no one was hiring.

Within weeks, more than 150 people were living in tents big and small, barely a foot apart in a patch of dirt slated to be a parking lot for a campus of shelters Reno is building for its homeless population.

Like many other cities, Reno has found itself with a "tent city" - an encampment of people who had nowhere else to go.

From Seattle to Athens, Ga., homeless advocacy groups and city agencies are reporting the most visible rise in homeless encampments in a generation.

Nearly 61 percent of local and state homeless coalitions say they've experienced a rise in homelessness since the foreclosure crisis began in 2007, according to a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless. The group says the problem has worsened since the report's release in April, with foreclosures mounting, gas and food prices rising, and the job market tightening.

"It's clear that poverty and homelessness have increased," said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the coalition. "The economy is in chaos, we're in an unofficial recession, and Americans are worried, from the homeless to the middle class, about their future."

The phenomenon of encampments has caught advocacy groups somewhat by surprise, largely because of how quickly they have sprung up.

"What you're seeing is encampments that I haven't seen since the '80s," said Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an umbrella group for homeless advocacy organizations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

The relatively tony city of Santa Barbara has given over a parking lot to people who sleep in cars and vans. The city of Fresno, Calif., is trying to manage several proliferating tent cities, including an encampment where people have made shelters out of scrap wood. In Portland, Ore., and Seattle, advocacy groups have paired with nonprofits or faith-based groups to manage tent cities as outdoor shelters. Other cities where tent cities have either appeared or expanded include Chattanooga, Tenn., San Diego, and Columbus, Ohio.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reported a 12 percent drop in homelessness nationally in two years, from about 754,000 in January 2005 to 666,000 in January 2007. But the 2007 numbers omitted people who previously had been considered homeless - such as those staying with relatives or friends or living in campgrounds or motel rooms for more than a week.

In addition, the housing and economic crisis began soon after HUD's most recent data was compiled.

"The data predates the housing crisis," said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD. "From the headlines, it might appear that the report is about yesterday. How is the housing situation affecting homelessness? That's a great question. We're still trying to get to that."

In Seattle, which is experiencing a building boom and an influx of affluent professionals in neighborhoods that the working class once owned, homeless encampments have been springing up - in remote places to avoid police sweeps. "What's happening in Seattle is what's happening everywhere else - on steroids," said Tim Harris, executive director of Real Change, an advocacy organization that publishes a weekly newspaper.

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