Hell’s half-acre

Sacramento’s homeless weigh in: Tent Town’s top 25 tips for surviving the economic downturn

Hung out to dry: Tent Town residents recover from last weekend’s drenching as the Union Pacific rolls into Sacramento.

Hung out to dry: Tent Town residents recover from last weekend’s drenching as the Union Pacific rolls into Sacramento.

Photo By R.V. Scheide

The old man wants nothing to do with the story. Not a thing. Can’t really blame him, considering what happened out here the other day. He’s talking about moving on, trying his luck in Las Vegas or Reno, getting the hell out of Tent Town.

It’s a desolate place, a ragtag collection of tents, tarps and lean-tos pitched on a half-acre of burned and scalded scrub brush just north of Midtown, between 20th and 28th streets. Once, this patch of wasteland served as the Sacramento dump. When the Union Pacific roars by Tent Town, there’s no question which side of the tracks you’re on.

The old man’s been out here three months. He’s a skilled craftsman, but there’s no work. There are other folks, men and women, who’ve been out here longer for the same reason. Then there are the ones who’ve been homeless for years, dragged down by drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and disease, or just plain dumb luck.

It makes for a volatile mix, and navigating through this no man’s land of poverty, depredation and occasional violence can be a daunting prospect. The old man knows the way, as do many of the people who inhabit this gritty tableau. Given the present economic downturn, the lessons they have learned are invaluable for those of us who may be joining their ranks sooner than we think. So, without further ado, here’s a list of survival tips from the denizens of Tent Town. May you never be in need of them.

1. Keep your distance

If you’re new in town, remember that even thought it looks like KOA at the dump, the residents here value their privacy, just like any place else. Don’t stroll up to a tattered dome tent, perched alone in a barren field like some unexploded bomb and say, “Wassup?” No. 1, you’re standing in their living room. No. 2, they might take it personally. Announce yourself from a safe distance, determined by how fast you can run with whatever you’re carrying. “Hello!” will do just fine.

Jim and his wife Star have been homeless for the past eight years.

Photo By Larry Dalton

2. Trust no one

If a giant man climbs out of tent and begins screaming and gesticulating wildly, quietly walk away. Visiting hours are over. Besides, the rumor is he’s the guy that set the field ablaze in the first place. Maybe he just doesn’t like company. The old man’s not like that at all. His far more civilized digs are situated on high ground, in the trees and brush on the unburned side of the camp. Wave hello, and he waves hello back. It’s safe to come in.

Except the old man is the first one who’ll tell you it really isn’t safe, because you can’t trust anyone in Tent Town, at least until you get to know them, and maybe not even then.

3. Keep your chin up

“There are worse situations to be in,” the old man says. “Out here, you’ve got to be responsible to yourself and others.” Being responsible to yourself means making the best of the situation. Heather, 29, a slim, attractive college graduate who has been on the streets for six months, looks at homelessness as a learning experience. “There’s a part of me that’s proud I can live out here on my own,” she says.

4. Stay organized

The old man’s camp is immaculate. The four-man dome tent is drawn tight and staked to the ground at the corners with lengths of angle iron, to provide extra support in the wind and rain. Across from the tent, he’s hung a tarp from the trees for shade. A small Weber barbecue occupies the kitchen area off to the side. It’s all laid out linearly, like the floor plan of a house. There’s no trash strewn about. Staying organized establishes a routine that keeps him focused on the goal: getting the hell out of Tent Town. “It’s something I work at,” he says. “It’s something to spend your idling time on. You’ve got to keep busy out here. Otherwise, you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”

A 1,200-watt generator makes life outdoors more bearable.

Photo By R.V. Scheide

5. Take advantage of local services

Organization comes in handy negotiating the plethora of services offered to the down and out in Sacramento. “If you starve to death in Sacramento, you’ve got to be pretty damned lazy,” says Jim, a 38-year-old disabled Navy vet who lives in Tent Town with his wife, Star. They’ve been homeless on and off for eight years and prefer living outdoors to the regimen of shelters. But for those who can handle the barrackslike atmosphere, overflow facilities for the winter have just begun to open. The old man takes advantage of the job-search services at the Employment Development Department. (See “Local Services” sidebar on page 24 for a partial list of assistance programs.)

6. Don’t ask for help from your family

The old man has a half-dozen relatives in Sacramento. He communicates with them regularly, picks his mail up at his older sister’s house. But no one knows he’s living in Tent Town. He’s in his late 50s and doesn’t mind being called the old man, as long as his real name and his photograph aren’t in the paper. There’s a thin line between pride and shame. “I’m no genius, I put myself in this situation,” he says. “It’s up to me to get myself out of it.”

7. Don’t look like a mark

Heather shares the same sentiments and hasn’t told her family she’s staying in one of the makeshift shanties burrowed into the brushy hillside that forms the camp’s western border. Living out in the open has sculpted her lean body. The ratio of men to women is roughly four to one, and even dressed in dirty blue jeans and a sweat-stained wife beater, Heather’s easily the most tantalizing temptress in Tent Town, a ripe target for lawless men and their unrequited perversions. Her advice? “Don’t look like a mark.” Be wary, but purport yourself with confidence. Human predators sense fear like sharks smell blood.

8. Forget about relationships

Jim’s aptly named dog, Meathead.

Photo By R.V. Scheide

Methamphetamine delivered Heather and her boyfriend to the streets. They lost it all, their jobs, their truck, their home. She’s off crank now, but he’s still running. So even though they still see each other, they live in separate homeless camps. His is in south Sacramento. “Homeless life is difficult on relationships,” Heather says. That’s especially true for hookups that develop within the camp. Imagine four men and one woman in various stages of dysfunction living together in close quarters. Throw in three or four 12-packs, and you don’t even have to light a match. It’ll detonate all on its own.

9. Find a bike

“I found a bike,” says Anthony, 40, who became homeless a year ago after a divorce. Perhaps he did find it; bicycles are ubiquitous in Tent Town, and bikes that are still rideable can often be found abandoned in the bushes near a defunct camp. Tow-behind trailers are the hot setup, used for everything from collecting cans, to packing in food and water. The bicycle comes in handy for traveling, say, the mile-and-half to Roosevelt Park at Ninth and Q streets, where every weekday morning at 9 a.m., Anthony effortlessly lofts bombs from outside the three-point arc, to the delight of his state-worker audience. Anthony swears he’s a former Sacramento King. He’s got a sweet jumper. Who knows?

10. Beware of dogs

Jim and Star have a pair of the meanest-looking dogs you’ve ever laid eyes on. Roscoe’s a stout, red bloodhound-mastiff mix. Meathead’s half bull mastiff and half blue nose pit. Meathead could take your hand off with one bite. Both dogs are leashed and bark fiercely when strangers approach the camp. The truth is, you’ll never find a pair of more loveable mutts, but that’s a mystery best left unexplored, if you want to keep all your fingers. Besides protection and companionship, Jim and Star say the dogs make great garbage disposals for leftover table scraps.

11. The homeless help the homeless

Jim and Star are the exception to the rule in Tent Town, a married couple who’ve managed to keep it together through eight years of periodic homelessness. Jim’s social security check barely covers the rent in an affordable-housing complex, which is where they were staying until last month, when the complex was condemned. So they spent the rent money on a new eight-man tent and a 1,200-watt generator, packed up their belongings and pedaled back out to Tent Town. A shy, older bearded man Jim calls his “street brother” shares the camp. “He’s my brother from another mother,” Jim says. “He’s the first guy I met when I came out here eight years ago, and I might not have made it without him. If the homeless don’t help the homeless, who else will?”

Anthony has been homeless for 10 months and is still learning the ropes in Tent Town. He’s got a basketball jones. Anthony, sporting a Sacramento Kings shirt, points toward Arco Arena.

Photo By Larry Dalton

12. Stay connected

The generator is a new addition. “I was sick of not having electricity,” laughs Jim, a spry 6-footer with long brown hair, a goatee and not an ounce of fat on his body. They have the nicest place in Tent Town, with an open-pit barbecue, a “garage area” for a half-dozen bicycles and a dog run. Most folks can’t afford the luxury of a generator, so AA and AAA batteries are coveted. Cell phones are relatively rare. Jim has a cell; he pays his bills by cashing his SSI check at the check-cashing place and maintaining a balance on a debit card. The old man still has his bank account, but his cell phone was recently shut off after the service provider mistakenly gave him an area code outside of 916. It was of absolutely no use to him, but the company refused to refund the money.

13. Choose friends wisely

A street brother or sister is someone who can be trusted to back you in a fight or watch the camp while you go to town or go bring help if it’s required. There’s safety in numbers, but it requires teamwork and cooperation. That’s why genuine street brothers are hard to come by. Just down the hill from the old man, Anthony, Kim and Ace have set up camp. Kim and Ace are a couple in their 40s who have been homeless for more than a decade. Anthony is still learning the ropes, and in Kim and Ace, he’s found companionship, someone to talk to after a hard day’s panhandling, scrounging for cans and Dumpster diving. Plus Ace is a big hulking bastard; no one’s going to mess with him, which means no one is going to mess with Anthony. Except Ace, of course.

14. Stay away from the river

It’s a half-mile from Tent Town to the American River, where the hard-core, chronically homeless hole up in the dense foliage leading up to its banks. The level of depravity increases the nearer you get to the water, which is why the American River Parkway is heavily patrolled by park rangers from Discovery Park to Cal Expo. “We heard screams coming from there last night,” says Kim. She’d be pretty if all of her front teeth hadn’t been knocked out. “They hauled another body out of there the other day, some mummified dude,” Ace adds. Kim shivers.

Ace made for quite a load, but paramedics eventually got him to the ER, where he was patched up and raring to go by the next morning.

Photo By R.V. Scheide

15. Hang your food high

There’s a heavy-duty, 5-gallon plastic bag hanging high from a tree in the trio’s camp stuffed with cereal, eggs and other perishables. “There’s rats and rabbits and snakes and lizards and flies and gnats out here,” Anthony explains. He kicks the side of Ace and Kim’s decrepit tent, and a shapeless form moves under the bedding and out a hole on the other side. “See?”

16. Abstain from alcohol

Ace, Kim and Anthony sit in a semicircle on salvaged lawn furniture, surrounded by dozens of crushed, empty beer cans, working hard on the afternoon’s third 12-pack. Ace’s face is buried in his chest, but every so often, he lifts his head and waxes eloquent in a slurred baritone. Most of his limited attention span is centered on getting in Kim’s pants. She’s not keen on the idea. “Love is God’s gift to us!” he complains. “You would throw that gift away?” It’s wasted on Kim. Ace’s mighty head slumps again; the large silver crucifix dangling from his neck swings on its heavy chain, like a pendulum.

17. Avoid scandalous behavior

The homeless help the homeless, and the old man has attempted to take Anthony under wing, with little success. “He’s going to wind up getting hurt around those two,” the old man says disapprovingly. He’s no teetotaler, but he’s seen the ravages visited by heavy boozing in the wilderness. “It happens to the best of us, no matter how smart we are,” he says. “When people start drinking and getting out of control, that’s when I leave.” Jim and Star concur. They abstain completely from alcohol, because out here, it only leads to “scandalous behavior,” which is to be avoided at all cost.

18. Don’t believe everything you hear

See Joe and Jennie ride: Bicycles are Tent Town’s most popular mode of transport.

Photo By R.V. Scheide

Anthony’s a true Renaissance man. In addition to once playing for the Kings, he earned a master’s in music and communications from Harvard, played semi-pro tennis and has an evil twin brother who died in Folsom prison. Tall and thin, he looks like a baller, especially when he wears the collection of Kings uniforms he keeps at the site along with a basketball. In addition to being a phenomenal athlete, he’s obviously had a good deal of college, so it’s difficult to say how much of this, if any, is true. He gets upset when you suggest it isn’t.

19. Wash your hands often

Although the notion is apparently lost on some of the village’s residents, personal hygiene is vital outdoors. “Wash your hands as often as possible,” Jim says, palms out, grease-stained fingers splayed. “They get real dirty working on bicycles, canning, working around the camp.” Washing your hands frequently also cuts down on the spread of germs. Hot water and bathroom facilities are available 24-seven just across the train tracks, at Grant Park, at 21st and C streets; and Stanford Park at 27th and C streets. Jim says it’s absolutely essential to drink enough water every day, especially in the winter. “You know you’re thirsty when you’re hot,” he says. “In the winter, you don’t realize you need water, and you can die from dehydration.”

20. Never underestimate the element of surprise

Ace’s increasingly aggressive advances on Kim are clearly irritating Anthony. It’s also become evident to Ace that Anthony has a crush on his wife—although it must be pointed out that though Ace and Kim have known each other for 15 years, they can’t agree on how long they’ve been together or whether they were ever married at all. Ace begins threatening both of them, but he’s so drunk, he can hardly sit, let alone stand. Nevertheless, he does attempt to stand, bellowing like a gored beast. He doesn’t see Anthony coming, airborne, arms and legs spread like Michael Jordan slamming a dunk home on a Nike commercial. But instead of a basketball, Anthony’s right hand is balled into a tight fist. He lands a perfect punch with all his weight behind it square on Ace’s nose.

21. When you strike the king, make sure he stays down

Ace falls to the ground on his hands and knees, blood spraying out of his flattened face. Anthony follows through with the punch and keeps right on running, the old man, who’s a bit uncertain about what has just transpired, hot on his trail. Kim’s screaming at the top of her lungs. The big guy slowly struggles to his feet, blood welting from his crushed nose, howling with rage. Meanwhile, Anthony circles back around, snatching up a large glass bottle along the way. Just as Ace finds his legs, Anthony flies in again, slamming the bottle against the top of the behemoth’s skull. It shatters in a fine spray of glass splinters and blood. Ace doesn’t get up for a long time.

The first winter storm ravaged the landscape, but inside their diapered tent, Jim, Star, Roscoe and Meathead stayed high and dry.

Photo By R.V. Scheide

22. The policeman is not your friend

“Stay away from the cops as much as you can,” says Heather. “They apparently have nothing better to do than hassle the homeless.” According to Jim, the park rangers are even worse. “They’d rather pack you out in a body bag than make you move your camp,” he says wryly. One of Tent Town’s more attractive features is that it seems to lie within a jurisdictional gray area. Even though all of its tenants are technically trespassing, none of the powers that be—the railroad, the parks department, Blue Diamond Almonds—seems all that eager to claim this godforsaken territory. An uneasy truce exists between its denizens and the law, one that’s inevitably broken whenever scandalous behavior occurs.

23. Don’t be afraid to call 911

The old man pours water over Ace’s mangled features to wash away the blood. Ace’s nose is a bloody pulp. A deep, jagged gash runs along the length of his right brow. Ace’s skull shines white through multiple layers of filleted flesh. Another deep cut begins just below his hairline and disappears in a forest of thick, black hair. Ace collapses on his hands and knees, drunk, bloody, defeated. “Call 911!” the old man yells.

24. Diaper your tent

The first winter storm struck with fervor last weekend, dropping 7 inches of rain in a three-day period. Jim and Star were prepared for the deluge. “You have to diaper your tent, just like you’d diaper a baby’s ass,” Jim says, with his perpetual good humor. Diapering includes adding a second heavy tarp under the floor and hanging another heavy tarp above the tent, to sluice off the rain. Jim also recommends wearing two pairs of socks to keep your feet dry. The old man’s camp is on the highest ground in Tent Town and rode the storm out fine. When the weather broke, those souls who hadn’t prepared wandered the misty, barren landscape in whatever dry clothing they could find, robes, pajamas and sweats, like escaped hospital patients.

The exact location of hell<br>Hell’s half-acre is located in the old Sacramento dump area, between 21st Street and Grant Park to the west and 28th Street and Stanford Park to the east. The Union Pacific railroad tracks are immediately to the south, and a dirt trail to the north leads to the American River.

25. Protect your turf

Jim and Star proudly fly the American flag in their camp. “These colors don’t run!” Jim says. They’ll move if the cops or the park rangers order them out, but anybody else “better make sure they eat a big lunch.” You have to hold your ground in Tent Town. Anthony’s just learning that. Ace came back to the camp with friends after his trip to the emergency room; Anthony split across the tracks. When he returned, he began moving his gear to another part of camp. If he’s going to move, the old man tells him, he needs to get out of Tent Town. Otherwise, it will be considered a sign of weakness, and Ace might be more inclined to settle the score. The old man prides himself on never getting angry, but he’s livid the day after the fight. What little tranquility he had has been taken. “I hate to leave Sacramento, but I may need to take a break from it,” he sighs. “I need to go somewhere where I can get it together faster.” For all is relative inexperience, Anthony hasn’t lost sight of that goal, either. “My plan it to get out here and get back to life,” he insists. If only it were that easy.