Panorama’s Hilary Andersson comes face to face with the reality of poverty in America and finds that, for some, the last resort has become life in a tented encampment.
Just off the side of a motorway on the fringes of the picturesque town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a mismatched collection of 30 tents tucked in the woods has become home – home to those who are either unemployed, or whose wages are so low that they can no longer afford to pay rent.
Conditions are unhygienic. There are no toilets and electricity is only available in the one communal tent where the campers huddle around a wood stove for warmth in the heart of winter.
Ice weighs down the roofs of tents, and rain regularly drips onto the sleeping campers’ faces.
Tent cities have sprung up in and around at least 55 American cities – they represent the bleak reality of America’s poverty crisis.
According to census data, 47 million Americans now live below the poverty line – the most in half a century – fuelled by several years of high unemployment. One of the largest tented camps is in Florida and is now home to around 300 people. Others have sprung up in New Jersey and Portland.
In the Ann Arbor camp, Alana Gehringer, 23, has had a hacking cough for the last four months. “The black mould – it was on our pillows, it was on our blankets, we were literally rubbing our faces in it sleeping every night,” she said of wintering in a tent.
The camp is run by the residents themselves, with the help of a local charity group. Calls have come in from the hospital emergency room, the local police and the local homeless shelter to see if they can send in more.
“Last night, for example, we got a call saying they had six that couldn’t make it into the shelter and… they were hoping that we could place them… So we usually get calls, around nine or 10 a night,” said Brian Durance, a camp organiser.
Michigan’s Republican-controlled state government has been locked into a programme of severe budget cuts in an attempt to balance its books. The cuts have included benefits for many of the state’s poorest residents.
Between the cuts and the economic conditions pinching, there is increased pressure on homeless shelters.Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor, Brian Calley, was asked about the reality of public agencies in his state suggesting the homeless live in tents.
“That is absolutely not acceptable, and we have to take steps and policies in order to make sure that those people have the skills they need to be independent, and it won’t happen overnight,” he said. There are an estimated 5,000 people living in the dozens of camps that have sprung up across America.