Tent City Stories

People of color reflect on the role racism played in leaving them without jobs and homes.

By Yvonne Yen Liu Jun 05, 2009

“Excuse me, where’s the tent city?”

The man with matted dreadlocks and a weathered face from the sun squinted at me. He wore a white T-shirt grey and slung a tattered jean jacket over his shoulder, hot from the afternoon sun. He was the only pedestrian in sight on Dreher Street, a block of modest Craftsman cottages with tidy lawns in a West Sacramento neighborhood. “Why would you want to go there?” he asked.

It was March and like many people, I had followed the flood of news coverage of the tent cities supposedly popping up across the country. According to the New York Times, as the recession devastated middle class homeowners of this country, jobless professionals were evicted or foreclosed on their houses and turned homeless. My curiosity piqued by that story as well as one on Oprah’s show and other media outlets, I headed to Sacramento to see the tent city with my own eyes.

I spent the two-hour drive with my partner discussing our ambivalence about being voyeurs of other peoples’ miseries and strategizing how to approach residents respectfully.

But nothing could prepare us for the landscape that greeted us: Miles of wasteland bisected by train tracks, concrete levee walls and a tangle of electrical power grids alongside the American River. The skyline of downtown Sacramento was barely visible in the distant horizon. The lack of trees magnified the afternoon heat and the sun beat down on the assorted tents and tarps arranged in clusters, some around campfires.

Marcela Grice, a 38-year-old Black woman, was reading a novel when I walked up to her. She wore thick glasses that enlarged her eyes and sat on a blanket near her small tent.

In a soft voice, Grice told me that she and her husband Andy, 45, had arrived by bus from South Carolina four days ago. She had worked at an auto parts factory down South but was laid off last summer. The Grices were drawn to Sacramento because they heard there were jobs.

Upon arriving here, they learned that employment was just as scarce in Sacramento as it had been in the South. They were now homeless as well as jobless. They had arrived at the tent city that morning from the city’s downtown area.

“We were pushed out by the police over there,” explained Andy Grice. “They didn’t like us because we were an eyesore.”

When asked what policy the city should pursue, Marcela Grice answered, “Sacramento has so many foreclosures. Why not let people live there?”

A new report published by the Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank that focuses on media and activism, draws similar conclusions.

Regardless of their income or economic status, people of color were systematically targeted by lenders for subprime loans, according to the center’s report, “Race and Recession: How Inequity Rigged the Economy and How to Change the Rules.” Since the net worth for people of color is mostly concentrated in their homes that are now repossessed by banks or worth less than the mortgage owed, families of color have no funds to fall back.

On April 15, Sacramento officials used taxpayer monies to shut down the tent city, remove the so-called eyesore and force the residents to relocate. Some of the tent city residents were moved to a shelter at the state fairgrounds, located at the periphery of the city.

The day I was there however the tent city was alive and well and so was the media.

A camera crew waded through one area while far off near the power lines, a photographer with an expensive camera slung around his neck interviewed two residents. The media circus was in town and the main attraction was the homeless.

Reporters had decided that the sign of our depressed times were contemporary equivalents of Hoovervilles and shanty towns now filled with Joe Plumbers and Soccer Moms.

Instead, the residents I interviewed had been homeless before this recession had struck.

A survey of 29 residents in the tent city found that more than half had been homeless for more than one year. Only about 20 percent had been without a home for less than a year. The day I was there, more than half of the residents in the part of the tent city I visited were people of color.

According to the Ending Chronic Homeless Initiative, the local service group that conducted the small survey, many of the homeless suffered from challenges that typically leave people on the outskirts of social and economic wellbeing. Sixty-four percent were disabled and 43 percent suffered from emotional problems. About 17 percent were interested in attending drug and alcohol recovery housing and 14 percent were veterans. Informally, three residents I spoke with admitted they were on parole or had some record.  

People of color have been living in an economic depression before the official start of the recession in late 2007.  

The “Race and Recession” report found that in all measures of economic and social well being—employment, income, wealth, access to healthcare and benefits through one’s employer, and protection from discrimination and exploitation at work—people of color fared the worst.

Take, for instance, unemployment.  

The rates of the joblessness have been disproportionately higher among Blacks and Latinos when compared to whites. Researchers at the Applied Research Center surveyed a 37-year span, from 1973 to 2009, and found that unemployment for Blacks was double that of whites for all but three of the years. Latino unemployment was 1.5 times that of whites for 32 years.

Without a job and a home to fall back on, people of color are usually one step away from homelessness.

Jay, 26, a Black man from Oakland, declined to give his last name, but he did share his story.

He has lived in Sacramento since 2002 when, on parole, he ran out of money and had nowhere else to go. He heard about the encampment from people while walking around the city.

“Sometimes it feels like having a criminal record is a disadvantage,” he said. “They should ban the box here, like in San Francisco.”

Jay was referring to the box on employment applications, which ask about prior felony or and misdemeanor convictions. A checked box can mean the difference between employment and being jobless.  

Even with a clean record, people of color still have it harder.

The “Race and Recession” report cited a study that found Blacks were called back for job  interviews at a rate of 14 percent, whereas comparable white people were asked to interview at 34-percent. A criminal record deepens the disparity to callbacks for only 5 percent of Blacks while whites who checked the box were invited at 17 percent.  

“Your record has nothing to do with a job,” said Jay, “Unless, you’re a bank robber working in a bank.” He smiled at his own joke.

Jay’s girlfriend Cora, who’s African American and Latina, stood next to him wearing pajamas and socks in the middle of a circle of tents. She lived in a house in Elk Grove, a city just south of the state capital. She was also now jobless.

“It’s hard to get jobs now as a person of color because people are racist,” she said.

She had submitted four applications to TJ Maxx but didn’t get called back. A white manager told her that they weren’t hiring although an employee said they were.  

As I talked with residents, Cortland Bell, 39, a supervisor of the kitchen at the downtown Radisson Hotel, came up and introduced himself. A reedy Black man with long limbs and a slim stature, Cortland had lived in Sacramento for more than 20 years.

“I’m walking through here because I know I could be here,” Cortland shared. He swept his arm to encompass all the tents in sight. “History and racism caused this. The U.S. is just as racist as it’s ever been.”  

Yvonne Liu is a senior research associate with the Applied Research Center.