Friday, March 6, 2009

Just Trying To Survive

Dark clouds are looming over our heads as I walk along the levee with Jim Peth from Loaves and Fishes, a local homeless advocacy group. Jim is giving me a tour of a large tent city that is home to several hundred homeless people in Sacramento. As we walk along we have to sidestep muddy puddles left behind by recent rainfall. There are hundreds of tents covered with blue tarps are scattered across a green field sitting in the shadow of downtown Sacramento.

I am spending a few days out at the tent city, or as the homeless like to call it, “the wasteland” Jim thought it would be a good idea to show me around the tent city before I went out there alone. Its not that it is particularly dangerous, but more that people are a little weary of a stranger. Jim introduced me to people that he knew and asked some to look out for me. He would often present me as “a friend of ours” which was nice, but I couldn’t help but feel like a character in Donnie Brasco. I was a made man.
A man named Jeff joined us on the tour, he had been at the camp for over 4 years, homeless close to 15 years. He said that when he first set up camp along the levee that there were only a few people. Now, there are hundreds peppered along the banks of the American River. I would later take a photo of Jeff standing by a row of tents. The day after I filed that photo I received an email from a woman that had seen the photo and said that she thought it was her long lost uncle. Her family hadn’t heard from him in years and thought that he had died. She told me that Jeff was originally from Colorado, and that is what Jeff had told me the previous day. His last name is unique enough that it is certain that he is the person that they are looking for.
Over the course of the two days I spent at the camp I met some amazing people. Most of them had been homeless for quite some time, others were new to being homeless. My days mostly involved talking with people and walking around. Some people wanted nothing to do with me, which was fine. I can’t blame them. Others were more than willing to share their entire life story – and then some. The community was very tight knit. People really looked out for each other, especially the elderly. Almost every person I met said the same thing, “we’re just trying to survive.”
One couple, Keith and Tammy Day, had recently moved into the camp after losing the home that they were living in. I approached them as they were starting to cook their evening meal over a small campfire fueled by a pallet that Keith had broken apart with a rock. I told them that I was interested in hearing their story. They were less than happy to see me.
Tammy sort of laid into me about privacy and how they really didn’t want anything to do with me. Keith voiced the same opinion and said he definitely didn’t want any pictures taken of him. I told them that I fully understood and was starting to walk away. Then something interesting happened. Tammy kept the conversation going, and she spoke for while. She vented her frustrations as she fried potatoes in an old pan. I chatted with Tammy and keith for 10 or 15 minutes, we had a good conversation. Tammy brought up my cameras and asked where the photos go that I shoot. After I explained to her what I do, she paused for a while and then out of the blue she said “if you want to take a couple pictures, you can. Just not a lot.”

I would end up spending most of time with Tammy and Keith. They warmed up rather quickly, which I was pretty surprised about. Keith and I joked around with each other, he even offered me one of his beers. I would have never thought that these two people would have opened up the way that they did. They were just nice people, down on their luck and having a hard time adjusting to being homeless for the first time in their life.
A man named VJ came by early in the afternoon letting people know that he would be back to pass out some supplies. VJ, a former corporate executive, had started his own non-profit charity outfit and had been coming to the tent city to give people things like tents and clothing. A mob crowded his truck as dulled out boots, sleeping bags and bags of clothes. While he was handing out things I noticed that he had a small webcam on his shoulder. I asked him about this and he told me that he did live webcasts so people that had donated supplies could watch the tent city residents receiving the handouts.
VJ would tell people to give him a list of things that they needed so he could bring them things that wouldn’t go to waste. I asked VJ about his organization and he said that he just wanted to help people. He organization is not faith based and doesn’t appear to be pushing anything on the people he gives to. After further discussion, VJ explained that he himself had fallen on hard times since losing a well paying job a few years back. His home is in foreclosure and he felt it important to see eye to eye with the people that he may one day join on the streets. I am still amazed by this man’s story.
I stayed at the tent city until I couldn’t see anymore. There is no electricity out in the wasteland, only a few tents can be seen with a flicker of a candle. It was dark – pitch black. Some people had built fire rings near their camps but none were being used tonight. The only light came from a nearby Diamond Almond plant and the Sacramento skyline.
Most people would go to bed once the sun went down so they could get up before first light to go out and collect recycling. It is one of the few ways they make money to buy food. When I returned the next morning at 6:30 am, most were already out and about.

Visiting the camp and meeting its residents was a humbling experience for me. It never ceases to amaze me just how generous people can be that don’t have anything. It is unfortunate that so many people have to live like this and sadly, it seems as if this bad economy and foreclosure nightmare isn’t going to end anytime soon.

Before I came to Sacramento, I looked through some photographs taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The photos were of homeless people living in a shanty town. The scene was similar to what I saw at the tent city. There were rows of improvised shelters, people cooking over a campfire. The dateline of Ms. Lange’s photos was Sacramento, California.


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Steven said...

This is very inspiring work. Do you think you will ever further your work on the tent city?