Finding the vampires of Los Angeles too much to bear, we made our way east to Ontario, California. We heard about a community of homeless people there that had set up camp in tents, so we decided that it would be worth a look.
Located only 40 miles from central Los Angeles, Tent City of Ontario is a community of people, whom for such reasons as house foreclosure, illness, homelessness and general hardship, have been forced to set up camp with nothing more than makeshift shelters and tents as homes.
The community is tucked away at the back of Ontario Airport and proves quite tricky to locate. Not very many of the locals in the area know exactly where it was. Those we asked know that it exists, but not where. This is hardly surprising considering its location, tucked under the very noisy take-off flight paths of the airport and also alongside the busy railway.
The surrounding neighborhood is definitely poverty stricken. Empty home lots lay vacant and it is hard to tell if houses once stood on them or not. Of the few local houses in the area that are still standing, there aren’t many that don’t require major improvements. Many have holes in the roofs, however about half of them still appear to be inhabited. One of the lots houses a couple of cramped R.V.s and it looked like a family is living on it. We noticed two kids and a dog playing in amongst the garbage that was overflowing from one of the abandoned pick up trucks on the property. It seemed like a grim environment for anyone to be brought up in. We were unable to tell whether or not the lot would be capable of hooking up to electric power, plumbing, or running water.
Tent City itself has been in existence for at least a year and houses approximately 150 people, although one report claims that until March 2008, it housed nearer 400 (http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/california/la-me-tentcity25mar25,1,5813554.story). The noise polluted and unbearably dusty encampment once housed people from all over the states, however recent city actions to improve the area have made it only accessible to Ontario residents. All others are being moved on (read: forced to leave).
The camp is currently divided up into three areas. The main area, which houses nearly 130 identical tents neatly in line and of uniform design, is a result of the local city’s effort to clean the area up. The other two sections are “old Tent City,” the community that existed before the city got involved, and the caravan park, which contains the community’s rundown cars, vans, pick-ups, caravans, and motor homes, which also formed organically. The latter two are systematically being taken apart and made illegal with the ever growing ordinances imposed daily on the community.
The city claims to have spent over $100,000, creating the 24 hour security and newly fenced encampment. To the eye this area looks like a massive improvement from the conditions people were previously living in, and on adjacent fields, still are. With fresh wood chippings covering the dusty field, and several porta-potties (provided by the lowest bidder to the local government), it is hard to see the faults and newly created problems that have arisen with the corporate/governmental take over of Tent City. And even though the city only supplies 2 cold showering facilities, anyone would think this was a step in the right direction. However, local residents seem to think differently. We spoke with Jack, a resident of Tent City and homeless person for several years, who gave us the lowdown on what’s going on.
“You see this area right here (Jack is pointing to “old Tent City,” and the caravan park, the areas where all those not eligible for a spot in new Tent City are currently staying). This was the center of Tent City, and now look at it!” All that remains are several tents, many of which appear to be abandoned, various piles of scrap metal that people are scurrying around collecting, and countless other piles of junk furniture and rubbish. There are remnants of a bustling community, of a tent city that was fully inhabited, a place that would have been relatively safe and certainly inviting for a homeless person. The effects of the city’s clamp down are hauntingly obvious. In one corner of the field, a few people are gathered round, starting a bonfire.
“Everyone is stressed today. The police are saying we have to move.” Jack informs us that the authorities are coming to “clear up” this area in the next few days. By “clear up,” he means dispose of everything there and then prohibit the area from its tenants, an action Jack certainly doesn’t seem to approve of.
“Them tents were donated to us by the church and other people, why do they just have to throw them away? Why can’t they donate them to some other people who need them?”
He also informed us of some of the new rules around the place. Despite the fact that Tent City is on public property, one is not allowed to enter the area without obtaining a permit. Those eligible to live in Ontario’s new enclosed version of Tent City must:
1) be official residents of Ontario, CA
2) never have had a criminal record, regardless of how small or dated it might be
3) leave behind all pets
4) re-apply for entry every 90 days.
But even those that have qualified and obtained a permit are denied basic needs that they once had the freedom to pursue before the city’s take over of the tent community. For instance, tenants are denied entry between the hours of 10 PM and 6AM. Additionally, small fires for heat and cooking are refused, and any furniture besides camping gear is denied. This means that folks forced to relocate behind the fenced in area must leave their mattresses, couches, and cookers a few hundred feet away to perish in the fields they once inhabited and are soon to be restricted from.
There’s also a huge effort to keep the non-homeless public away from Tent City. We had arrived with food to donate, and were told by an officer in the newly constructed wooden security hut that we weren’t allowed to be in the area whatsoever, and that if we wanted to donate food we would have to call a number and arrange it. Arrange what? Here we were with a bag full of food and a few hundred feet across the way were hungry people. But as we found out, this was just a small example of the degrading rules being imposed and enforced in the area. We decided not to leave on the officer’s request, and stood talking with Jack near “old Tent City.” When we walked perhaps twenty feet to take pictures just outside the city funded “new” Tent City, a local police officer asked for us to be escorted away by a private security guard, because we weren’t carrying permits.
The freedoms of Tent City tenants and visitors are being dissolved as the jurisdictions pile up. The community is being patrolled and rebuilt by the lowest bidding companies. Homeless folks from around the south west once fled to this area in hopes of refuge, safety, and community. Now they are finding themselves uninvited and back on the streets. If the local homeless do qualify to stay, it is under a constant watchful, controlling eye- an eye that belongs to private security companies funded by the Ontario City tax payers.
We talked to Rebecca and Sean, two residents of the soon to be restricted “old Tent City,” who were equally as dismayed as Jack. Rebecca used to work a few towns over in Stater Brothers, a local grocery store. She was injured on the job and “from there, it was a domino effect. I couldn’t pay my rent and was on the streets very soon.”
As for Sean, he doesn’t meet the recently imposed qualifications to stay in Tent City feels the city has done nothing for him. “They still look on me as a criminal. On my record, I am a criminal, but I haven’t done anything in 4 years and 8 months.” He is certain that more tent cities will be popping up as a result of mass house foreclosures and a tumbling economy. He gazes around at the large neighborhood around us and says “Everywhere you look, this is just the fruit. You can’t see the root. I don’t know what the root is. Maybe it’s the economy, maybe it’s American society.” He shrugs his shoulders and just behind him, a rent-a-cop pauses in his car and stares out at us from across the block.