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For more hard-pressed Americans, a campsite is home

Camp grounds and tent cities become permanent addresses.

(Page 2 of 3)

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.

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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.”

But in places like Sacramento and Champaign, Ill., that’s exactly the debate. In March, Sac­ra­mento closed a large tent city, even as officials in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area face a proposal to set aside city land for a major homeless tenting area. A group in Champaign is lobbying the city to put up a 60-tent facility. In early August, advocates fought in court to keep open two tent cities – Camp Runamuck II and Hope City – in Rhode Island, but their effort failed. Campers now have an early September deadline to pull up stakes. States are also responding. Alabama recently opened its two largest state campgrounds to permanent campers, partly in response to the poor economy.

While many seem to find romance and even liberation in paring life down to the barest necessities, the prospect of muddy campgrounds, inclement weather, and sparse toilet facilities is, in fact, disheartening, especially to families who are enduring it against their will, says Mr. Heumann.

“There’s all kinds of good or bad solutions that people and families are working on,” he says. “But the question for a lot of Americans is whether you’d like to go back to a permanent nomadic style of life. I’m afraid we’d just slip further behind the median lifestyle, and our skills to get along would atrophy.”

Survival skills, at least, are sharpening at Timberline.

Kathy Newton, a veteran, couldn’t raise $500 for a deposit on an apartment so instead moved to an expanding compound at Site 34 at Timberline. At least, she claims, her health has improved by living outside.