For more hard-pressed Americans, a campsite is home
Camp grounds and tent cities become permanent addresses.
A gravelly campground off Interstate 40 in central Tennessee is a last refuge for a hodgepodge of Americans: Here you can get a $275-a-month camping spot with a 30-amp electric outlet and a scratchy Wi-Fi signal emanating from “the bathhouse” down the lane.Skip to next paragraph
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“It’s my permanent home – for now,” says Terry Lee Ballard, who says he runs a small record label from his “tent condo,” which is replete with “redneck engineering” such as a tent-flap air-conditioning unit.
As cities from Sacramento, Calif., to Tampa, Fla., debate the merits of tent cities to house newly homeless people (many of them young families), this recession is starting to yield scenes that evoke the Great Depression, especially at places like Timberline Campground in Lebanon, Tenn.
Living in well-worn campers and tent compounds overstretched with 20-foot-long tarps, 85 percent of residents here are permanent, a good chunk of them “economic refugees.” It’s an increasingly familiar scene across the country as campgrounds, RV parks, national parks, and city-owned pockets become inundated with permanent campers, and as entire tent cities spring up and expand, with some hinting at permanence by voting on village bylaws.
“It’s not quite Hoovervilles, but it’s getting there,” says Leonard Heumann, a housing policy professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, referencing the massive tent cities and shantytowns erected during the Great Depression.
But the great outdoors is not a last resort just for the cash-strapped: Wal-Mart tent sales are up 36 percent over last year, and campgrounds are reporting a surge in requests for primitive campsites as Americans forgo beach condos to find their inner Thoreau.
At a time of downscaled dreams, it’s a harbinger of how closely many Americans are walking the knife-edge between a roof and a tent flap. But for many, like Tammy Renault, who lives in a tent with a husband and four kids, there’s virtue to be found even in a muddy tent floor.
“This tells you what you’re made of,” says Ms. Renault, a devout Christian whose faith has been steeled, not diminished, by her family’s crisis.
Her story is a snapshot of the American edge: After the family moved to Tennessee, her husband Troy’s contracting business failed. The choice soon became paying the rent or the electric bill. They set up camp here nearly four months ago. The first week of August, three of the four kids started school, with one of them, Ty, waiting at the front of the campground for the school bus.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) estimates that this recession will create 1.5 million new homeless – nearly double the current number. Half of those people will exist outside the shelter system – in cars, tents, campers, or sleeping bags under highway overpasses. (Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the homelessness alliance.)
With the jobless rate at a 30-year high and a foreclosure wave still sweeping the nation, wait lists for shelters are expanding and laid-off Americans are looking for other options. The rise in long-term tenting and camping is a sign that people’s options are running out, says Nan Roman, president of NAEH.
“When people have choices, they don’t [move] into tent cities,” says Ms. Roman. “They’re very understandably looking for hope and they’re seeking virtue in it, but I think we can do better to help people achieve their potential than tents.”