STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We want to report next on people who no longer have any home to lose. For as long as anybody can remember, the banks of the American River in Sacramento, California have been home to drifters. But widespread layoffs, home foreclosures, and a deepening recession have created something new, a sprawling tent city of homeless people on the American River. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, it emerged in the shadow of California's state capital.
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RICHARD GONZALES: On the northern edge of downtown Sacramento, next to the train tracks, there's a campground spread over the area of several football fields. Small groups of homeless people have pitched tents here over the past year, but social worker Jim Peth, who works at a nearby soup kitchen, says now he's seeing new faces.
Mr. JIM PETH (Social Worker): And that's been very recent. And you can tell it simply because they're much better dressed. They're disoriented; they don't know where to go. So they're pretty easy to spot.
GONZALES: Take 53-year-old Dave Cutch, dark hair, glasses, medium build. His clothes suggest a suburban hiker, except that he's standing in a muddy patch in front of a tent he's called home for the past two months.
Mr. DAVE CUTCH (Homeless): I'm a welder, right? So the company I'm working for - I get laid off. I qualified for unemployment — 24 weeks. My car's paid off, my truck's paid off, my bike's paid off, everything except for my house payment, right? But I feel like I'm still going to pull out of it.
GONZALES: That was about a year ago back in Colorado. Cutch says months went by without work, he lost the house, his car was stolen, his savings ran out. So this past August, he took up a friend's invitation to come to California. That hasn't worked out either.
Mr. CUTCH: Trying to get back on my feet, you know. Daily, I still go out looking for a job. But the thing I'm running into is when I put the application in and I get the interview they ask me, Where do you live at? And I go, well actually, I don't have a place to live. I'm homeless. That's about it. They won't - they don't hire me.
GONZALES: Cutch is one of many here getting by with no sanitation or running water. The only real protection from the elements is nylon tents and plastic tarps. Some of the people you'd call the chronic homeless, but not Cutch.
Mr. CUTCH: I did not expect to be ending up living out here. I did not. It's a scary thing actually.
GONZALES: In a nearby tent, Tina Garland(ph) has watched the tent city population grow, from only three people a year ago to over 400 today. Garland was a truck driver. Her husband, Corvine, a car salesman.
Ms. TINA GARLAND (Homeless): It's terrifying because everybody is going to end up out here unless somebody does something. And unfortunately, nobody knows how to fix this. How do you get your house back? How do you get your job back when they're all gone?
GONZALES: Tent cities have sprung up in other localities like Portland and Phoenix. But this one in Sacramento is drawing national attention, much to the chagrin of city leaders. Mayor Kevin Johnson says he can foresee making the tent city permanent, but not on its current site.
Mayor KEVIN JOHNSON (Sacramento, California): We need tough love, meaning we have to be compassionate to this population. I'm very committed to doing it; I feel we have a moral obligation. And then number two, we have to have a zero tolerance. And I think our city should look at a timeline of what can we do to curb this, and where can we put these folks that are along the river in terms of campsites, but we eventually have to have a zero tolerance. It can't happen tomorrow though.
GONZALES: In the dining hall of Loaves and Fishes, a nearby faith-based charity group, spokeswoman Joan Berk(ph) says the real problem of tent city is that it's making the new class of homeless more visible.
Ms. JOAN BERK (Spokeswoman, Loaves and Fishes): And it makes people uncomfortable sometimes and that motivates some of us to try to help, but it also motivates some people to say this is unacceptable. We're just going to close it down.
GONZALES: Still, a dramatic shut down of the tent city in Sacramento doesn't appear to be in the works, at least not until the city and homeless advocates can agree on what to do next.
Richard Gonzales, NPR News.
INSKEEP: I'm looking at photograph of that same tent city, one of the residents sitting there wearing an American flag wind breaker. You can see that photo and others in a photo essay at npr.org.
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