Sunday, March 23, 2008

Tent city highlights US homes crisis

Tent city highlights US homes crisis

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The meltdown in the US mortgage market has led to record foreclosures and forced thousands from their homes. In few places is it worse than southern California, where the BBC’s Rajesh Mirchandani reports on an extreme consequence of the downturn, but one that some observers fear could grow.

Forty miles east of Los Angeles, on a patch of waste ground, is the place they call Tent City.

Sandwiched between the local airport and the railway line, this really is the wrong side of the tracks.

We are on the outskirts of Ontario, a functionally pleasant commuter-city in southern California.

Last summer, local officials established this camp as a temporary base for the city’s homeless population, then around two dozen.

But word spread and now some 300 people live here. It has an air of scruffy permanence, and indeed, city officials say there are no current plans to close it down.

Varied histories

Most residents live in tents, some in mobile homes in various states of disrepair, their possessions crammed in with them or spread out on the ground.

Amenities are basic - no mains electricity, no plumbing, no drainage. Portable showers offer a chance to wash, but there is nowhere to prepare food, apart from makeshift tables in the open air.

Dogs and children scratch around in the dusty earth.

What is striking is the range of people here: whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, the old and young including some with babies. And they tell a variety of stories too.

Benson Vivier, a Vietnam veteran, said a leg operation allowed him to walk after years of being in a wheelchair. But as a consequence his disability benefits were cut, and he could not afford his rent

Others told tales of family disputes or houses burning down. Some were addicts, some fresh out of prison.

’Home or food’

But one man, who did not give his name, said he and his family were living in Tent City because they were victims of America’s foreclosure crisis. It came down to "feeding my family or keeping the house", he said, "so I got rid of the house".

The property he lost is nearby in Ontario, which, in places, offers a middle-class suburban dream - green lawns, wide pavements, garages big enough for two cars.

Yet it is in an area known as the Inland Empire, where the rate of foreclosure is the third highest in the entire US.

No longer able to afford his mortgage payments, this man saw his lender repossess the property, and now someone else lives there.

"It’s hard for me to see it, when someone else owns it and I am homeless with nothing," he said.

There are thousands like him across California - people whose inability to finance their mortgages has cost them their homes; many thousands more across the US.

But in Tent City, at least, he is in a minority - few are here as a direct result of the housing crash.

However, Mike Dunlap, who runs a volunteer group providing supplies to Tent City’s dwellers, thinks that could change.

"People lose their homes through foreclosure," he says. "They go and live in the hotels, and the homeless people who were in the hotels end up back on the streets."

He fears that, as more people lose their homes in what appears to be a deepening housing market collapse, more former homeowners could end up in places like Tent City.

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