Working Tent-Dwellers: One foot in, one foot out of the American Dream

Around the holidays, this blog explored where homelessness and environmental issues like recycling, consumerism, and green housing. While I noted that shelters and food pantries were receiving a huge influx of patrons after the economic downturn began, the post was mainly about folks who were already homeless, and probably had already accepted the label some time back. An article in the New York Times, Cities Deal With a Surge in Shantytowns deals with what I see as a relatively new phenomenon: not people who are addicted to drugs or mentally ill, not necessarily migrant farm workers or veterans, although a variety of paths might lead a person to end up in a shack or tent.

“These are able-bodied folks that did day labor, at minimum wage or better, who were previously able to house themselves based on their income,” said Michael Stoops, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group based in Washington.

Treehugger calls these settlements "Bushburbs", but they sound similar to the Hoovervilles in the Grapes of Wrath, fragile dwellings through which a fluid and varied population flows, developing their own social norms which are a combination of everyday values (pride of home and country, neighborly concern) and a not-so-usual lack of safety and hygiene. Less extensive than Hoovervilles or the favela towns in Brazil, these clusters of tents are springing up outside of major urban centers. When I was a social worker serving mentally ill people in New York City, many of them homeless or formerly homeless, I encountered a lot of people who wanteed just what I did: a stable, clean, affordable place to live, some measure of safety in their lives, and the opportunity to be as productive as their health would allow. Many of these individuals had been isolated by institutionalization, lack of social ties, their mental illness, or a drug fog from the very medication that was helping them. Some people had always existed on the outskirts of society; others had fallen out of the social contract and were fighting hard to get back in.

These modern shantytowns sound like a different situation than that of the homeless folks I knew, many of whom at least had Medicaid or some kind of services. These are the uninsured working poor, still existing somehow within the American Dream with its value on homeownership and work, while receiving few of its benefits. Interestingly, Treehugger links to a campaign called "Save the American Dream", which is organizing neighborhood tours across the country to highlight the impact foreclosures are having on neighborhoods.

It's interesting that homelessness has traditionally been thought of as people who can't or won't work (though the truth is many homeless people are employed in some fashion). Now at least it should be becoming clear that homelessness is not an individual failure but a systemic one: if you are employed or want to be, and contributing to a system that gives you little in return, then maybe people from all walks of live can begin to see themselves in those "less fortunate." The very instability of these "interesting times" may lead us to a stronger sense that we're all in this together.

Tags: Crisis, Downturn, Economy, Families, Homeless, Poor, Poverty

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