The Un-Housed

A new generation of people are falling below the line

A tent camp of people who wouldn't have been here a year ago

Martin Banks
April 13th, 2021

A few weeks ago, I wrote about boondocking and the people I have seen and met who live out of their cars and vans, sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity. In part, the essay was intended to be a little more clear-eyed about how people are left out of the American dream. Living in your van is a choice for some. For many, it's a way to survive and make a life. If it's not a choice, it's a challenging way to live.

Some of my photography work is for non-profits who use my photos to promote their cause. I feel fortunate to have the resources and skills to do this type of work. Typically, I spend time in a foreign country working on a project where the color palette is pretty dull, and living conditions are rough at best. When returning to the U.S., I always take note of how clean and green this country is. Our roads are paved, and the medians are landscaped. There are no open landfills, and the buildings and houses are in reasonably good repair.

Recently, I was invited to photograph an area here in the U.S. where a homeless camp had developed. I've seen homeless camps on the fringes of downtown areas and the backstreets of old industrial parks. Mostly out of view for those who travel the main thoroughfares and highways, these camps are conveniently ignored by most citizens and government alike. The homeless camp I was to photograph was across the street from a shopping center and lined the access road to a central boulevard, hardly hidden from view.

What do you think of when someone says "homeless camp?" I think of cardboard boxes and tarps for shelter, maybe a tent for the lucky ones. And shopping carts filled with belongings ready to move on when the police come to clear the area. Most of all, it's the sad sad people who sit and stare off at nothing, maybe smoke a cigarette or pick at scabs. Some haven't showered for weeks, maybe longer. I know, it's gross, and it's sad. Yet, this is the image most of us have when thinking about homeless people in this country. It was what I thought about homeless people when living in New York City and what I think I know about homeless people in my own hometown today.

I am sorry to report that we have a new homeless crisis on our hands.

After spending several hours walking along the tents, taking photos, and talking to people, I came to a realization. For the most part, these were not the homeless people we usually think of. One guy was busy fixing up a bicycle. A lady was trying on new socks she had gotten from an outreach program. Conversations were going on, and people were busy figuring out their day. It was a community where people were taking care of themselves and others.

Let's call these people The New Homeless.

I brought up my essay about people living out of their car or van because that situation is just one step away from where these people are - living in a tent across from a strip mall. It's a confusing and challenging situation for anyone to understand. These are not the people who are so far gone that they can't function and take care of themselves. Those who we usually think of as homeless. This is a functioning community - but they are without a house.

On that day, several people wanted to share their stories with me, two single guys and a couple. Their stories were the same. Each of them had lived out of a car or van and had made it work, mostly. Then the vehicle license registration came due. I know that registration is between $150 and $200 for most ten-year-old cars in California, plus another $50 for a smog check. We'll split the difference and say it's $225 to keep a vehicle licensed. Maybe if you don't have $225, so you let the registration lapse and hope for the best. That's what these people did.

Each of these people had their car or van towed and impounded. So now it's the $225 plus towing and storage fees. They all gave up on getting their car back along with all their stuff that was in it. One of the guys told me about couch surfing for a while, but it just wasn't sustainable. Now he lives in a tent and has a bus pass.

I imagine one of the reasons this camp is across from a strip mall, aside from food and a laundry, is the Man Power office. At least some of these people worked as day laborers through Man Power and had a meager income. It's not enough.

This is an alarming situation. People who once had jobs and were laid off because of the pandemic are out on the streets. The most fragile and venerable group of people in our economy do not have a safety net nor a fallback plan. They have gone from having a paycheck, an apartment, and a car; to barely surviving on the streets of our towns and cities.

These people feel stuck, and I can see why. To move into an apartment, they need first and last months rent plus references. To buy a car, even a clunker, it's a couple a grand minimum. And the stimulus checks, which are intended to help people just like these. With no mailing address, they most likely won't receive one.

For now, these people make do with tents, bicycles, bus passes, and day labor work. I wish I could predict what is next. I just don't know.

And like I've said before, I wish there were a way to end this essay neatly and tie everything up with a bow and a happy ending. I can't so that. As a start, the best I can do is help create awareness. You have to think that there will be a tipping point. Either we do something to end homelessness, or we ignore it, and it spirals out of control, and we are left thinking, "why didn't we do something?"

Thanks for reading. I appreciate you