Imelda Caluag rummages hastily through a plastic bag full of clothes. She pulls out socks, knickers and sandals before she eventually finds the thing she wants to show us: a 22cm black and white television. “It gives me the bit of dignity I deserve,” she says. “When I’m watching TV, I can forget where I am.”
The dark-haired woman in the black cotton dress is an estate agent who sells mobile homes for a living. But since January 2008 she’s been living in a purple plastic tent under an elm tree. “My market just crumbled away,” she says. “The banks stopped lending money to my customers.” She opens the zip on the tent, reaches for her cell phone, steps outside and hangs a pair of wet trousers on the line. Caluag used to sell six houses a month, until the US credit crisis abruptly switched off the financial tap. First her clients lost their home. Then the estate agent found herself unable to pay her bills, her mobile home went under the hammer, and she was homeless.
Friends bought her a tent, and took her to Tent City, which has sprouted up in Ontario, a suburb of Los Angeles. Nowhere are the effects of the horrendous credit crunch as obvious as they are in the US, and up to 600 people at a time have been camping here, although that number dropped to 200 when the city began turning away all non- locals. They live between train tracks and stray dogs, amid mountains of trash and piles of old chairs. These campers represent the two million American families unable to pay off their debts, and who in 2007 lost their possessions and even their homes by foreclosure. By the end of 2008, another 3 million people are expected to have joined them. And as the American welfare state is unable to prevent such suffering, many of them face the same fate as Caluag: homelessness.
Caluag dials a number. After a short conversation, she dials the next one, then another. “Finding work is impossible,” she says, biting into a sandwich. “As soon as someone hears I don’t have any fixed address, they hang up.”
She is also in a bad mood because her boyfriend has just told her he will never visit her at this place. “I feel as if I’ve had my head cut off, and…” She stops, unable to hear her own words. The roaring of a Boeing 757 preparing for take-off drowns everything out. Camp Hope, the name of this tent city, is located right at the end of the runway at Ontario Airport. Every ten minutes a low-flying jet zooms over the dusty, shapeless campsite.
In contrast to the chaos all around, estate agent Caluag’s ‘home’ is tidy. All her worldly goods are contained in five suitcases. There’s a rug on the gravel floor. Her shoes, boots and sleeping bag are sorted into a neat row. There’s a roll of toilet paper next to a cool box filled with ice, water and cola. She inspects the violet nail varnish peeling off her fingernails. “My hands are always filthy,” she complains, before saying goodbye. It takes her 20 minutes to walk to the laundry room where she can recharge the batteries in her cell phone.
Not far from her tent are the train tracks that run inland from the cargo port in Long Beach. Every half hour, a freight train thunders past. Many wagons are green containers bearing the words “China Shipping”.
Cheap Chinese imports have dominated the US market for a long time, creating a giant trade deficit that has driven America’s debt up and the value of its dollar down. “From our tent, we watch the mountain of debt growing on the tracks,” says Ronda Farnsworth, a corpulent 30-something law student. Thirty years ago, her mother purchased a house not far from Ontario. Last year she took out a loan on it with New Century, a lender of sub-prime mortgages: the riskiest of loans. Shortly afterwards New Century went bankrupt, and the house was sold at auction for 8,000 dollars. As Farnsworth owed money, she didn’t receive a cent from the sale. But now she is seeking legal redress. “We were robbed,” she says, bluntly.
Her tent stands slightly apart from the others, in the southeast corner of Camp Hope. A tarpaulin keeps the rain off, and she has a foldaway table, from which a bag of trash is dangling. “The garbage truck wakes us at 6am,” she says. It’s already warm in the early morning; and she’s dressed in red shorts and a vest. Her friend Holly Hughes is at the gas stove frying eggs, sausages and hash browns. Every month the two of them receive food stamps—162 dollars each. Farnsworth holds Fuzzy, a grey kitten, in her arms. “Fuzzy is so small, we’ll hide her when we move to the new camp.”
The new camp—everyone talks about the new camp. The Ontario authorities recently decided to try to reduce the chaos, so a wire fence now runs through the middle of the camp, enclosing a gravel square the size of a football field. In this fenced-off area are rows of empty white tents with green sunroofs. The ground is covered with strong- smelling wood-chips. Seven council workers in fluorescent jackets are working here. They speak Spanish and a radio is blurting out ranchero music. It’s a bizarre scene: Mexicans building polyester shelters for homeless Americans.
One worker carries green crates from a truck and places them on the ground ten metres apart. On each is a picture of American idyll: a photograph of a mother, father, son and daughter camping. One of the workers takes a car key and slits one of the packages open, removing a tent that says “Made in Sri Lanka” and spreading it out on the ground. Another knocks pegs into the ground, puts the tent poles into position and slowly starts to erect the tent.
Outside the fence, other labourers are screwing iron brackets onto benches, so that people can sit on them, but not lie down. The next morning they deliver mobile toilets, set up showers, and install security cameras that will watch the campsite non- stop. Once the council-owned camp with its 149 tents is up and running, only those people in possession an ID card issued in Ontario will be admitted. The camp gates close between ten at night and six in the morning, and throughout that time everyone must stay inside. Two private security guards spend all day and night driving up and down the perimeter fence in a Toyota Corolla. If they see anything suspicious, they call the police. “We don’t get involved ourselves,” explains a chubby guard in a starched shirt.
At the east end of the camp, David James puts a piece of wood on a small fire. This skinny 50-something man has a crew cut and wears jeans, and an open jacket revealing his bare chest. He places a grill over the glowing charcoal and puts a sooty kettle on it. Then he feeds a friend’s dog. He grabs a cup from a cardboard box, rinses it out, tips two spoonfuls of Nescafé in and adds a sugar cube. When the water starts boiling, it’s coffee time. He slurps the hot liquid. “Not bad,” says James. “When I came here, I couldn’t even light a fire.”
He arrived as a homeless person in a long-distance bus. The forklift-truck driver from North Carolina broke his right leg while at work. He wasn’t insured and the medical costs ran to 40,000 dollars, leaving him bankrupt and losing him his house. He had just enough money for a bus ticket to Ontario, the place where he grew up. “My American dream crumbled,” says James. “The two nights on the bus were hell, I cried the whole time.”
He is divorced; his two grown-up children have no idea their father is homeless and living in a tent. He lights a cigarette on the campfire and pulls his trouser leg up to the knee. “Look, that’s why I’m here.” There’s a 20cm scar running up his calf from the ankle. He throws more wood on the fire. “But my leg is mended and now I’m looking for work.”
Every day he goes to the recruitment agency. He wants to work in a factory or as a gardener. “I didn’t find any job today either, the economy has gone down the drain,” he says. “There were 60 people after one job that pays eight dollars an hour, so I had no chance.” And not having his own house also puts him at a disadvantage. “But at least I have a sort of home now.” He points to a blue and white tent. There’s a wire leading from it to the car battery that powers his radio. “My clothes are clean, I shave every day, I have an alarm clock and I’m always punctual.”
A minute later he’s in the new council camp. The west gate is open. James creeps in and inspects his new home. He’s holding a cup of fresh coffee. He walks along a row of tents, bends down, unzips one of the tents and steps inside. “Oh, I like it. There’s plenty of space in here,” he says. His eye catches a semicircular flap where pets can come and go. This is not something you’ll find in the camp where James is living now. Cats and dogs are forbidden. But almost everyone has a pet of some kind. “It’ll be a drama,” James fears. “No one knows what’s going to happen to these animals.”
A tall, thin man with wavy grey hair tramps leisurely across the camp. Two penetrating blue eyes stare out from a craggy face. David Busch might look like a film star if he took better care of himself. He’s been homeless since 1992. He’s been arrested 24 times, he says, “but never convicted”. Around his neck is a sign bearing the words: “More Love”. Now in his 50s, he begs, writes articles for newspapers sold by the homeless, and organises protests. He describes the camp as a “true wonder”. “America is stuck in the worst housing crisis in its history,” he says. “These tents draw public attention to our plight.” At last, he says, a city is willing to admit “that the crisis is huge, that there are people in America without a roof over their heads.”
According to Busch, it all began in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan. First as Governor of California and then as President he was responsible for cuts in social welfare. After that, he says, “we became dependent on continually rising real estate prices. The mere belief that houses would rise and rise in value was enough to drive the economy.” But now the country has woken up with a hangover. “We are real estate alcoholics.”
Estate agent Caluag’s neighbour has his own way of depicting America’s housing crisis—he has hung his ‘Stars & Stripes’ upside down. He says the inverted flag symbolizes that the country is under stress and in need of help. “Camp Purgatory” is written on the mast. It’s hot and dusty, and there are more dirty tents than clean ones. Many of the campers are drug dependent, and the nights are often violent. One attack left a slit in Caluag’s tent.
Despite all this, human dignity remains undefeated at Camp Hope and purgatory is still far away. Early in the morning, a petite woman in dressing gown and slippers makes her way to the water supply, which consists of a hosepipe and a cold shower. She shampoos her hair, rinses it, dries it in the wind and combs it. She finds a toilet with the sign “Women Only”. Meanwhile, Mr Ling flies his homemade kite, which blesses the whole camp. Tammy is chopping potatoes into small cubes and roasting them over a fire. She’s invited friends over to eat with her and celebrate the fact that her kidney stone has finally dissolved. She can pee again. Elsewhere people who hardly know each other tell stories of their youth. They all long for a night in a motel, for a warm shower and some respect.
But one person doesn’t know what respect is. A homeless woman offers the chubby guard from Securitas a plate of spaghetti. “No thanks,” he says, waving the plate away and grinning through the car window. “I don’t want to spend all night on the toilet.” The woman walks away shaking her head. “What an idiot,” she says.
Next to David James’s home a hand-painted Red Cross flag flutters in the breeze. It’s a place of comfort on the camp. People come here if they need something: soap, a sleeping bag, a hug. A piercing scream breaks the silence. “Yolanda can’t walk,” says James and calls Clifford Spencer, a bullish man in denim shorts with tattoos on his arms, who grabs a small case with a red cross on it. “We have to go to her tent right away,” he says.
In the night Yolanda Truglia’s foot has become inflamed. She has three children and lost her house after her divorce. Before Christmas she met David McIlmoil, 12 years her junior, a camp resident and a veteran of the first Gulf War. He has been in and out of prison since he left the army. He is shirtless and his bare chest and shoulders are adorned with tattoos of monsters. He kisses Yolanda. “It was love at first sight,” he says. “Since then, I’ve been living in her tent. She pushes him away, tormented by “hellish pains”, as she describes them.
Truglia suffers from diabetes. Yesterday she ran out of insulin. Spencer enters the green tent, takes out a pair of scissors, disinfects them and cuts two ulcers open. Puss and blood squirt out. James, who is sitting next to her, gives her his hand but she rejects it. “You can tolerate more pain than I can,” he says. “No wonder, I’m a woman,” she says. Spencer washes the wound and dresses it. Then he rubs her feet with ointment. She hugs him in gratitude. “You desperately need insulin,” he says and drives her to the nearest clinic.
Spencer, a retired engineer, is one of the volunteers that make Camp Hope possible. Every day he visits the sick, dresses wounds, attaches splints to broken fingers, and applies ointment to burns. He’s been helping the homeless for 17 years “because people should help one another,” he says. He believes losing one’s house is an “emotional disaster”. It can take a month or more until someone is able to stand on their own feet again. “If you are safe and have something to eat during this critical time, you can start looking for work again.” He encourages people to do just that – nothing more. And what’s in it for him? “It’s a privilege being able to help,” he says. “Who else is going to wash a homeless person’s feet?”
In the evening, the sun casts a magical light on the mountains of San Bernardino. Spencer learns that Yolanda would have died of blood stasis if he hadn’t treated her and taken her to the clinic. “It cost hardly anything at all to save her life, just a little time and a few dollars for the petrol,” says the helper. “I’m happy she’s alive. Nobody would have cared if she had died.”
Sunday morning is cooler than the previous days. People making their way to the toilet now wear fleece jackets over their pyjamas. Suddenly a line of cars drives up creating a cloud of dust. Children, fathers and mothers all get out. They set up white tables and fill them with burritos and bottles of water, porridge and flasks of hot coffee. In no time, a queue of people has formed, in a scene reminiscent of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Yolanda Truglia— who just yesterday was afraid she would die—is third in line with her boyfriend. But before the two are allowed to eat breakfast, a woman minister from the Catholic Church “Our Lady of Guadalupe” calls the campers to prayer. “We pray before we eat.” She’s wearing a Mickey Mouse jacket. “God have mercy on these people,” she says, bowing her head and folding her hands. The homeless do the same. Children hold up signs with verses from the Bible written on them. A church helper writes down the names of the hungry.
To one side of the line is David Busch, the activist with the beautiful eyes. He doesn’t eat anything. “I’d rather look for leftovers in the rubbish bins,” he says. There are fifty churches at Camp Hope trying to recruit new members. They hand out food three times a day. “The State has passed social responsibility onto the church,” says Busch, “and they exploit people’s misery to fish for new members.” Nevertheless, no one goes hungry here. A group of smartly dressed Mexicans arrive later, then wait in vain for people to feed. The homeless are already full.