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For more hard-pressed Americans, a campsite is home

Camp grounds and tent cities become permanent addresses.

By Staff writer / August 31, 2009

Laurie Bowen holds one of the family cats as her daughter, Christina, chats with grandson Damiyan. The family landed here after Laurie’s husband lost his job in construction.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Lebanon, Tenn.

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.

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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.