Busting Some "Tent City" Myths

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Okay, so first of all, it’s not a tent city – at least, not to its residents. 
Zoulas: “What the people out here refer to it as is the Wasteland.  That’s what it was called before somebody tagged it as Tent City.”
Carol: “Because this used to be a dump.” 
That first voice isn’t a resident; it’s Officer Mark Zoulas with the Sacramento Police Department.  He’s one of the two cops on the homeless beat out here, and he knows just about every resident by name.  The second voice is a homeless woman named Carol.  She brings up another misconception: that the tent city – I mean, Wasteland – is a land of waste.  It’s actually not that bad, she says. 
Carol: “We have food, fire, we have light, whether it’s candles or flashlights or lanterns.  We have almost everything here that houses do except for electricity, and one camp, I had electricity.” 
Now, don’t get her wrong – it’s certainly not your typical suburban home, and there aren’t any bathrooms or dumpsters.  In fact, rubbish is strewn across the grassland next to the Union Pacific railroad tracks.  But Officer Zoulas says some of the tents are pretty big. 
Zoulas: “You see this here, and what we’re looking at is, not really tents at all, but pretty much like – what’d you guess? Fifty feet long by about 12 feet wide series of tarps and such that make actually quite a cabin of sorts.  That belongs to China and Eric.  So that’s two people.” 
Which brings us to one of the most important myths of all – the number of people camping out.  This one’s been bugging cops and homeless advocates alike. 
Zoulas: “I’ve heard anywhere from 100 to 1200, and I’ve heard anything from 100 new tents a night to 50 new people a week.” 
Uh, no, says Zoulas.  He thinks there’s probably between a hundred and 130 people here at any given time.  And Zoulas says he doesn’t know of a single one of them here because of the down economy.
Finally, what about crime?  Well, the police department says it doesn’t get too many calls.  That’s because Zoulas and his partner jump in on the big stuff – and let the residents handle the rest.  As a homeless man named Eric says:
Eric: “Just don’t do anything you wouldn’t want done to yourself.  If you do, there’s more of us than you, you know what I mean?  Kinda govern ourselves a little bit, make sure nobody’s getting too badly beaten up around here.” 
To be clear, this does not mean everything’s all hunky-dory out at the Wasteland.  There are serious problems that the city and county are struggling to address, like the lack of toilets and dumpsters.  But police, residents and homeless advocates all say the picture painted by some media reports is simply not accurate.