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Tent city phenomenon: When there’s nowhere else to go

Katarina Kovacevic is a freelance travel writer specializing in hotels and resorts. She's the author of The Food Lovers' Guide to Phoenix & Scottsdale and founder/editor of Style Jaunt, a blog about fashionable travel. Her work has appea...

Real stories: Tent cities

Nearly 61 percent of local and state homeless coalitions cite a rise in homelessness since the US foreclosure crisis began in 2007, according to a report by the National Coalition for the Homeless. The organization adds that the problem has worsened since the report was released in April 2009.

Tent City

The increase in homelessness has resulted in more "tent cities" -- encampments of people who have made their makeshift homes under freeway overpasses, next to crowded shelters and even in community parks. Faced with an ailing economy, mounting foreclosures, a rise in gas and food prices and a tightening job market, some US residents are turning to these camps as a temporary housing solution. They start simply enough, with one person staking claim in an area of town for the night. Soon after, more people, sometimes in droves, follow.

The reality

In Santa Barbara, for example, the city has blocked off an entire parking lot for people who are living out of their cars. Meanwhile, the city of Fresno, California, is struggling to manage several multiplying tent cities, including one where people have built their shelters from scrap wood. These encampments are reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the shanty towns that sprang up across the nation during the Great Depression in the 1930s. 

Experts have found that most residents in these tent cities are economic homeless, a term for those displaced by layoffs, foreclosures or other financial issues caused by the recession. They are different from the chronic homeless, people who have been street residents for most of their lives and who often suffer from mental illness, drug abuse or alcoholism.

How you can help

Offer your time

Many cities have put programs into action that offer temporary housing to the homeless. You can get involved by donating your time to organizations that work with these displaced individuals. The goal is to help them get their lives back on track and ultimately to the point where they are able to find housing for themselves. Homes for the Homeless is an organization that has adopted a family-based, education-focused approach to its programs and services, which provide homeless families with the support necessary to live independently.

Sacramento Self Help Housing provides housing counseling and referrals to residents in need and offers low-cost shared rooms with their Friendship Housing Program. This non-profit organization works to improve the living conditions and increase the self-sufficiency of people living at or below the poverty level in the Sacramento area. Organizations like Homes for the Homeless and Sacramento Self Help Housing exist across the country. Visit your community center or contact one of your local rescue missions to get information on what they are doing to combat homelessness in your community.

Start a food drive

Another way you can help is by organizing a food drive at your church, business, school or community center for a local shelter. Whether contributions are canned food or hot meals, even just small contributions from people in your community will help. Once you've collected the food, assemble a group of people to take the supplies down to the shelter. Many churches and community organizations already have programs set in place.

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