Panorama’s Hilary Andersson comes face to face with the reality of poverty in America and finds that, for some, the last resort has become life in a tented encampment.
Just off the side of a motorway on the fringes of the picturesque town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a mismatched collection of 30 tents tucked in the woods has become home – home to those who are either unemployed, or whose wages are so low that they can no longer afford to pay rent.
Conditions are unhygienic. There are no toilets and electricity is only available in the one communal tent where the campers huddle around a wood stove for warmth in the heart of winter.
Ice weighs down the roofs of tents, and rain regularly drips onto the sleeping campers’ faces.
Tent cities have sprung up in and around at least 55 American cities – they represent the bleak reality of America’s poverty crisis.
According to census data, 47 million Americans now live below the poverty line – the most in half a century – fuelled by several years of high unemployment.
One of the largest tented camps is in Florida and is now home to around 300 people. Others have sprung up in New Jersey and Portland. In the Ann Arbor camp, Alana Gehringer, 23, has had a hacking cough for the last four months.
“The black mould – it was on our pillows, it was on our blankets, we were literally rubbing our faces in it sleeping every night,” she said of wintering in a tent.
The camp is run by the residents themselves, with the help of a local charity group. Calls have come in from the hospital emergency room, the local police and the local homeless shelter to see if they can send in more.
“Last night, for example, we got a call saying they had six that couldn’t make it into the shelter and… they were hoping that we could place them… So we usually get calls, around nine or 10 a night,” said Brian Durance, a camp organiser.
Michigan’s Republican-controlled state government has been locked into a programme of severe budget cuts in an attempt to balance its books.
The cuts have included benefits for many of the state’s poorest residents.
Between the cuts and the economic conditions pinching, there is increased pressure on homeless shelters.
Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor, Brian Calley, was asked about the reality of public agencies in his state suggesting the homeless live in tents.
“That is absolutely not acceptable, and we have to take steps and policies in order to make sure that those people have the skills they need to be independent, and it won’t happen overnight,” he said.
There are an estimated 5,000 people living in the dozens of camps that have sprung up across America.
The largest camp, Pinella’s Hope in central Florida – a region better known for the glamour of Disneyworld – is made up of neat rows of tents spread out across a 13-acre plot.
The Catholic charity that runs it has made laundry available, as well as computers and phones.
Many of the camps are organised and hold regular meetings to divide up camp chores and agree on community rules. They have become semi-permanent homes for some residents, who see little prospect of getting jobs soon.
These tent cities – and this level of poverty – are images that many Americans associate with the Great Depression.
Unemployment in America today has not reached the astronomical levels of the 1930s, but barring a short spike in 1982, it has not been this high since the Depression era.
There are now 13 million( I’ve seen numbers has high as 20million) unemployed Americans, which is three million more than when President Barack Obama was first elected.
The stark reality is that many of them are people who very recently lived comfortable middle-class lives.
For them, the economic downturn came too fast and many have been forced to trade their middle-class homes for lives in shelters, motels and at the far extreme, tented encampments.
Meanwhile in Spain
On a recent evening, a hip-looking young woman was sorting through a stack of crates outside a fruit and vegetable store here in the working-class neighborhood of Vallecas as it shut down for the night.
At first glance, she looked as if she might be a store employee. But no. The young woman was looking through the day’s trash for her next meal. Already, she had found a dozen aging potatoes she deemed edible and loaded them onto a luggage cart parked nearby.
“When you don’t have enough money,” she said, declining to give her name, “this is what there is.”
The woman, 33, said that she had once worked at the post office but that her unemployment benefits had run out and she was living now on 400 euros a month, about $520. She was squatting with some friends in a building that still had water and electricity, while collecting “a little of everything” from the garbage after stores closed and the streets were dark and quiet.
Such survival tactics are becoming increasingly commonplace here, with an unemployment rate over 50 percent among young people and more and more households having adults without jobs. So pervasive is the problem of scavenging that one Spanish city has resorted to installing locks on supermarket trash bins as a public health precaution.
Editors note. I bet someone you know is forced to count on others for food or shelter here in America, land of little freedom, home of the starving. Its no secret that homeland security has spent millions and millions of dollars on bullets. To do what? Protect us? Look if you don’t start feeding us and giving us jobs Mr President there wont be anyone left to defend because we will all die of starvation or from the elements. Yeah its that bad in America!
Maybe all those bullets are for the hungry and homeless piling up in tent city’s, maybe they feel threatened by the poor rising up to take what they need as they tell us to eat cake, while the mega banks and the white shoe boys get richer and fatter off those from which they took everything. If the course of this country is not changed soon America will be to poor to stand up and fight back against anything.
We will be reduced to looking for our next meal, while the cops try to find a reason to arrest us for growing or finding said meal.
Those of us that still have jobs better speak up for those that do not or one day that could be you out on the street looking through a trash bin just to survive.