Off the 99: Homeless camps

The Merced City Council's recent decision to evict illegal campers across town may leave local homeless people with nowhere to go.

The city has justified its decision by arguing that as long as there are enough beds in Merced, it's inhumane for residents to sleep in tents.

But others disagree. Some campers at the city’s largest site, Black Rascal, said the situation isn’t so simple.

Already against instability, many of the homeless in the camp say they’d prefer to maintain a semblance of home – even it it’s a tent – rather than the rule-bound and paradoxically unstable shelter life.

Homelessness, in many cases, is a temporary experience, so the number of people who might find themselves in a shelter, on the streets or living with friends is hard to quantify. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that more than 3 million people – 1.35 million of them children – experience homelessness in a given year.

In 2008, Merced County’s Continuum of Care group counted 120 homeless in Merced’s streets and camps. The number was higher, at 224, last year.

This week, “Off the 99” went out to the camp site to see what the campers there thought about the council’s decision.

We also caught Neil Donovan, executive director of National Coalition for the Homeless, over the phone at his Washington, D.C., office. Donovan shared his thoughts on national homeless issues – and had a few words for Merced’s leaders.

“Tent Cities are Americans’ de facto waiting room for affordable and accessible housing,” Donovan is quoted as saying in a new study, “Tent Cities in America: A Pacific Coast Report.” “The idea of someone living in a tent in this country says little about the decisions made by those who dwell within and so much more about our nation’s inability to adequately respond to those in need.”

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