A Lisa Ling Special Report
Headlines about the recession—layoffs, home foreclosures, bailout bills—are everywhere, but who are some of the people truly affected by this economic crisis? "Today, we want to try and humanize this recession," Oprah says.
Journalist Lisa Ling went back to her hometown of Sacramento to investigate tent cities—makeshift shelters set up by people who have lost their homes and have nowhere to go. Sacramento is among the hardest hit areas, with an estimated 1,200 people living in tent cities, but officials say these communities are popping up all over the country and won't be going away soon.
Tammy is a 47-year-old who says she has been living with her husband in this tent city for a little less than a year. "My husband's job fell through," she says. "He was a tile setter ... [but people] weren't buying houses anymore, and there was no need for tile setting. We lost our car and our home, our apartment. We lost everything we had."
Though Tammy and her husband are both actively looking for work, they say it feels impossible in this economy. "That's where we're going this morning," she says. "To get cleaned up and go out and try to make our best appearance."
The hardest part about living in a tent city is losing the everyday amenities most people take for granted, Tammy says. "Taking a shower when I want, walking into my bathroom, turning the light on. Fixing my hair and doing my makeup," she says. "I miss looking like a girl."
Jim, a widower and father of five, says he has been living in this Sacramento tent city for four months. "I worked in the construction trades pretty much all my life," he says. "Then with the economy the way it is, everything just seemed to start going downhill." Eventually, Jim says, he was no longer able to pay rent.
Obviously, living in a tent city is a huge adjustment, Jim says. "It's like learning how to live all over again." The most prized possession to those in tent cities is water, Jim says, and his tent is stocked. "We have to walk about 3 miles round-trip just to get a bottle of water."
Jim says he looks for work three to four days a week and told Lisa he spends about 60 percent of his day trying to stay clean and look presentable. "It's not like you can get up and there's a nice hot shower and a bathroom to use."
Until about a year ago, Corvin was a car salesman. His wife, Tena, drove a commercial truck but lost her job around the same time. Tena says she and her husband have been living in this tent city since then. Though they have three grown children, Tena says none of their kids know they're homeless. "I have a 35-year-old son, and he doesn't know. I call him, about once a month and on holidays, to let him know that I'm well and healthy," she says. "He would love me anyway, but I don't want to worry him."
Lisa says this is a common story among the homeless in Sacramento. "We met a number of people who have kids, but they don't want them to know," she says. "They don't want to burden their children."
Though Lisa has covered breaking news stories worldwide, she says this one hit too close to home—literally. "This was my hometown, where I spent 17 years of my life, and this is being repeated all over the country," she says. "Every single person I spoke to said that over the last six months, the numbers [in tent cities] have been exploding."
Tent cities are illegal in Sacramento, but Lisa says that may change soon. "So many people are seeking out shelter because all of the homeless shelters are filled beyond capacity, that they're actually thinking about legalizing tent communities, and the city is actually thinking about providing services," she says. "Surprisingly, the community has been extremely sympathetic because so many people in Sacramento have gone into foreclosure. ... The shelters say that people have actually been donating more because the attitude is 'I'd rather spend money so that people can have shelter than buy new material stuff.'"
Update: Since this show originally aired in February 2009, the city of Sacramento dismantled this tent city, citing concerns over public health and safety. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson promises to put $1 million toward finding beds and permanent housing for the displaced residents. In the meantime, looming budget cuts threaten to shut down three more shelters in Sacramento County during the summer of 2009. Homeless advocates say the local shelters are still filled to capacity every night.