|Oregon Family Campsite, Photo by Rob Finch, 11-2007|
This photo, by friend Rob Finch (Oregonian), gives you a peek at what passes for camping for families with no other place to stay. Once they lose their homes--for a variety of reasons--and discover that their town has no shelter, the shelter is full, or the shelter doesn't allow intact families, they get, um, creative, and camp. Rob and I followed this family around for several days during a raw, rainy November. They had "camped" for about 6 months on the wooded edge of a church property.
This camping is far different than state parks or private campgrounds. Families tend to set up their tent (if they're lucky enough to have one) and tarps (a cheap essential to extend their living space and to cover their firewood and belongings) in remote places--thick woods--close enough to sources of food and other essentials but out of public view. They don't want child welfare agents, police officers or nosy do-gooders finding them.
They lack access to any basic hygiene facilities, i.e. bathrooms. They're always being invaded by critters large and small, and camps like this lack any way to be safe and secure from 2-legged predators.
Weather is always an issue. Water--in its many forms--is both a luxury (fresh drinking water and water to bathe with) and a menace, soaking blankets, clothing and food. Cold temperatures become brutal. Hot temps make living miserable. Wind and snow are "bonuses," making life even more miserable.
Food--especially nutritious offerings--tends to be scarce. Storage of food vexes even the most determined camper--rats, raccoons, and chipmunks always get their way. Lack of refrigeration presents logistical challenges. Cooking is an art that Jamie Oliver would learn from. Cooking space sanitation? Forget it. Food supplies are meager because pantries often hesitate to give food to people who have no address. What they give is often impractical for campers.
Health care? Nope. Sickness, yup.
School--if they're lucky the kids will get to/from school. Can't say much for the quality of their attendance or participation. Nutritionally and sleep deprived, hygiene-deficient, and insecure kids don't make the best students.
And in this testy environment, we're finding families with kids of all ages. Homeless camps used to be just for the crusty "hobo" types, those escaping or rejecting life as most people know it. But now, in this day of uber-prosperity for the lucky ones, the unlucky ones fall through the big crack. Emergency shelters are turning away families in record numbers. Families with nowhere to go and nobody to help them turn to the great outdoors.
I don't know how people can sleep knowing that moms, dads and kids are huddled under tarps and tents, lacking heat, lacking civilization, lacking any way to get out of this mess on the outskirts of most communities. Everywhere I go, even in the affluent Atlanta suburbs, homeless families "camping" is epidemic.
Occupy Wall Street (and many other efforts nationwide) could benefit by the numbers of families and single individuals setting up camp. They could bolster the numbers of people on the streets because they live on the streets. And if we don't get things turned around, unrealistically before the brutal cold sets in, we're going to have homeless children and parents dying on the streets.
Pathetically, and embarrassingly, at the same time of this record ravaging homelessness, record numbers of vacant houses sit and rot. Now if someone can't figure 2+2 and decide homeless families and empty houses are in many cases a good combination, well, we're dumber than we look.
If you want to help, check out the HEAR US Compassion Action Guide on our home page (http://hearus.us). Plenty of opportunities to make a difference, including a link to vote for the HEAR US CITGO $5000 gas card prize.