by Claudia Aragon
Shanty Town. The newscast came on and I stared at the T.V. in disbelief.
“There are 2500 new homeless in Sacramento. Not since the great depression have we seen the likes of this, “Shanty Towns” are starting to pop up everywhere.”
As my husband and I watched, the cameras panned across a small tent city, a city of 300 homeless people, living in lean-tos, tents, or other makeshift enclosures. As they cooked soup in a can, over an open flame, the newscaster continued her commentary.
“Unemployment is at an all time high. Foreclosures are up. Families find themselves faced with the harsh reality of being two paychecks away from homelessness. All the shelters in Sacramento are filled to capacity.”
Although I’m too young to have lived through the great depression, there have been some tough times my family found its way through. It was difficult, but somehow we made it. We persevered.
In 1961 when I was small, we lived in rural Oregon, just on the outskirts of Albany. My parents had bought a two bedroom house situated on a ½ acre lot. There was a stream running through the backyard, and a meadow filled with wild flowers behind the house. It was picture perfect. Idyllic really. I was almost four and mom had just given birth to my baby sister. Dad was busy adding a third bedroom for our growing family. Everything seemed perfect. That is, until dad lost his job. Dad worked for Kaiser Mines, and he and several others were laid off. The logging industry was in a slump, and none of the lumber mills were hiring either.
Dad tried, but couldn’t find work, and they ultimately lost their dream home. My grandparents were seasonal (migrant) workers and had come to Oregon to pick green beans and strawberries. Now that they were through, the family was headed back to California. Since they’d lost the house, my parents thought they’d try their luck back in California as well. We must have looked like a gypsy caravan. My grandfather led the way in his flat bed truck. Beds, mattresses, a couple of chairs, a dresser, pots and pans, boxes, as well as my Aunt Janet (8), Uncles David (10) and Benny (11) filled the back of the flat bed.
Next in line was my Aunt June, her husband Bud, and baby Joree. They had their Rambler filled to the hilt with their few choice possessions, and clothing. Then it was our turn. There was a mattress in the back of the station wagon, and boxes tied securely with thick, rough rope on top of the car. Momma had brought as much as she could, in her attempt to save her most prized possessions. What she could keep safely stored at a cousins house, stayed behind in Oregon, and we left, not knowing if we’d ever be able to go back to retrieve our belongings.
The family drove until we found crops that needed harvesting. Then we’d camp by the side of the road, until the adults earned enough money for food and gas, to help keep us on our way.
It was spring of 1961, and we were about three weeks shy of Easter. I had outgrown my shoes, and my parents were hard pressed financially, but bought me a new pair of black patent leather shoes. They were beautiful, and I never wanted to take them off, so I even wore them to bed at night.
Our caravan found work just north of Tulare; cutting grapes. Lucky for the family, the job was going to last at least three weeks, maybe longer. We pulled off the road and set up camp. We were sheltered from the highway, wind and sun by a bank of eucalyptus trees, and there was a dirt road between us and the railroad tracks. Just across the tracks lay a large farm house, and there were three large piles resembling hills, one of sand, one of gravel and one of mulch just across the tracks as well.
All of the adults took turns staying at camp watching the babies and us kids, and so one by one they stayed behind while the others worked.
We hadn’t a care in the world. We were children and unblemished by the worries and cares of the adults. Just shrugging off their occasional surly, moodiness, with a kids indifference. The beds, chairs, dresser, pots and pans came down off the truck, and we set up house. Then all of the kids had lessons to do, which consisted of chalkboards and doing spelling, reading, and some basic math. Then whichever adult was still at camp would read the newspaper aloud to us.
Large stones were gathered to make the fire pit, and all the kids set out to gather up firewood and kindling. The next task at hand was to set the snares and traps. If we were lucky we’d catch one or more rabbits for dinner. Grandma made a mean rabbit stew, and her fried rabbit ran a close second.
Every day the train came by right after lunch. We would stop whatever we were doing and run over by the tracks to wave. When we’d see the engine, we would start to jump up and down, waving wildly until the caboose was well out of sight. This was our daily ritual. After the first day, it seemed as though everyone on the train knew where we were, for every window in the caboose was full of smiling, waving people.
We were absolutely forbidden to go across the tracks. Being children we of course did exactly what we weren’t supposed to do, we went across the tracks anyway. My Aunt Janet was the instigator, and obediently my sister and I followed her. After all she was the eldest and so it must be ok. It was decided we would sneak across when grandpa and the babies took their nap.
We had an absolute blast, climbing the piles of sand, gravel and mulch, laughing, rolling down the sides of the hills, that is until I lost one of my beloved shoes. We had been having so much fun I hadn’t noticed. Then we heard grandpa calling us and we started running back to camp in a panic. My panic turned to sheer terror as I noticed one of my shoes was gone. My Aunt Janet and sister Robbie went running back to camp, while I turned, running back in search of my lost shoe. When grandpa asked them where I was, they did what any self respecting kid would do…….they lied.
“We don’t know where Claudia is grandpa.”
“She didn’t go across the tracks did she?”
“Oh, we don’t know. We haven’t seen her.”
“Get the dog and your sister’s sweater.”
My sister brought grandpa my sweater and Janet got the dog…Queenie. Queenie was a very large, tri-colored German shepherd. Grandpa had trained her well. She was an excellent guard dog, and tracker. He had also trained her to play a select few kids games. He had taught her to play hide and seek. She would smell all of us kids before we would hide, and then grandpa would cover her eyes, counting to a hundred while we all ran and hid. If she caught you, she would take you by the wrist and gently take you back to home. She played squat tag too. It was so hilarious. The dog would sit before you could tag her, but if she was it, she would run from kid to kid until her nose touched someone, making them it.
Grandpa had Queenie smell my sweater, and then said, “Go find the baby…girl.”
Queenie took off like a shot and of course came barreling down on me, while I was on top of the sand pile, still searching for my missing shoe. She grabbed me firmly but gently by the wrist, pulling me, as I cried all the way down the hill and straight back to grandpa, who was waiting by the tracks, belt in hand.
I had a spanking all the way back to camp, because I had gone across the tracks. Then I was spanked again for losing my shoe. Of course, I did get revenge of sorts, for Janet and Robbie received three spankings. One for going across the tracks, one for lying about it, and the last one was for leaving me when I was the youngest.
When mom and dad got back to camp, everyone went to search the piles for my missing shoe, except for Uncle David, who stayed behind to watch the babies, Joree and Geri. My shoe was eventually found and we went back to camp to prepare dinner.
Dinner consisted of boiled potatoes, ears of corn and a rabbit that we caught in one of our snares. While the corn and potatoes boiled, and the rabbit was roasted on a long metal skewer, grandma made soda biscuits as well. After dinner we’d all sit around the fire while the adults told stories about our family history and better days gone by, or they’d play the harmonica and we’d all sing and dance. This was our routine for three weeks.
The beds were made in an open room, painted with trees and wildflowers, while a ceiling of stars served as our night light. Next to my bed were jars filled with frogs, lizards, butterflies, pollywogs, special rocks and interesting pieces of wood. When it was time for bed, I would run from person to person to make sure everyone had a goodnight kiss, then I would kneel down and say my prayers, thanking God for all the blessings he gave my family.
The day before we broke camp, when the train came by, there was a huge banner across the side.
“Wait for the caboose kids.”
We jumped up and down waving madly while we smiled and laughed. We all donned our best clothes, for tomorrow was Easter. We didn’t want our nice dresses to get all wrinkled while we sat in the cars all day, so we agreed we would wear them a day early.
When the caboose finally came, the people threw two huge paper bags full of candy bars to us. What a wonderful and delicious surprise. The next day we loaded up all the vehicles and said good-bye as we closed the door on one of many life adventures.
It was funny how the newscast triggered that particular memory from my childhood. Living in San Diego County for the last twenty-two years, we saw how both the resale values of homes and employment were affected in 1991. Unemployment was up and housing values were down, but not to the severe degree it has been for the last two and a half years. It also made me wonder how many people were facing those same circumstances today. We’ve seen friends, family and coworkers in Escondido, Poway and San Diego agonize with the loss of a job, home or both, and the possibility of relocation to another state hopefully to face a new and prosperous beginning.
I’m grateful everyday for the lessons I learned from my parents and grandparents, for there are so many people ill prepared for the circumstances our current economy can and will throw at them. For instance, stretching our money and budgeting for tough times, plus the ability to cook nutritious, hearty meals that don’t cost a lot of money to prepare. I’m also lucky in the fact that I have a husband that can and does fix just about anything that breaks, saving our family untold amounts of money every year. Hopefully this is going to be a short lived situation, and our economy will turn around with minimal fall out and casualties. Then we can all get over our recession depression.
FOOTNOTE-The farmer my family had cut grapes for, owned several small one bedroom houses for his workers to live in and rent at a reasonable rate. All three of our families were given houses to live in while the adults continued to work his farms; cutting grapes, planting, harvesting, as well as running the tractors and plows. While we lived there I went to kindergarten, and had several other wonderful adventures.
The Author, Claudia Aragon
That’s a story for another time.
What happened to Claudia’s family is still happening to others. Many others.
Today, tents are once again springing up in the city of Sacramento. But this time it is for people with no hope and no prospects.
With America's economy in freefall and its housing market in crisis, California's state capital has become home to a tented city for the dispossessed.
Those who have lost their jobs and homes and have nowhere else to go are constructing makeshift shelters on the site, which covers several acres. As many as 50 people a week are turning up and the authorities estimate that the tent city is now home to more than 1,200 people. (This was as of 2009)
Conditions are primitive, with no water supply or proper sanitation. Many residents have to walk up to three miles to buy bottled water from gas stations or convenience stores.
At other times, charity workers arrive to hand out free food and other supplies. The images of Americans living in tents would shock many. 'It should be an eye- opener for everybody,' one observer said. 'But we shouldn't just be shocked, we should take action to change things, because it's unacceptable. It is unacceptable that in this day and age we have gone back to a situation like we had during the Great Depression.'
Authorities in Sacramento, where Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has his office, admit the sight of families living in such poverty is not pretty. But faced with their own budget crisis and an enormous deficit, they have had little choice but to consider making the tent city a permanent fixture.
As America's most powerful state, California had the same gross domestic output as Italy and Spain, but it has been among the hardest hit by the recession and housing crisis.
Foreclosure rates last year rocketed by 327 per cent, with up to 500 people a day losing their home. Coupled with massive job cuts that have seen one in ten workers laid off, many people who once enjoyed a middle class existence are now forced into third world conditions. Thus, a modern day version of “Shantytown.”