Reno's Tent City
November 2008

by Max Whittaker

"Really? A tent city in downtown Reno?" That was my reaction when Getty assignment editor Pierce Wright called and offered me an assignment. With an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent in September, more than 102,000 of Nevada's residents were out of work. Simultaneously, one of Reno's homeless shelters was temporarily closed so the city had many homeless with no place to go. City officials organized a temporary tent city in downtown to cope with those people.

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Tammy Tyra of Texas tries to warm up in a tent city for the homeless in downtown Reno, Nevada, Oct. 6, 2008. Tyra works cleaning trucks but is unable to make enough money to afford housing. The City of Reno set up the tent city when existing shelters became overcrowded as Nevada struggles with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
At the same time, the nation's headlines were blaring financial doom and ruin. The Senate and Congress had just passed a bailout plan, and Wall Street trading graphs looked like a saw blade. Despite all of this economic turmoil, photo coverage by the wires and major national papers was very narrow. All readers saw were pictures of senators and members of Congress agonizing over different bailout packages or the ubiquitous images of Wall Street traders in various poses of agony. With this assignment, I hoped to offer a glimpse of how those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder were coping with the crisis.

I arrived early in Reno and found the tent city a few blocks from Reno's downtown casinos, sandwiched between a sunken rail line and an existing homeless shelter. It was surreal - the concentration camp-like feel of tiny tents surrounded by gleaming chain link fences and security cameras, with the towering casinos and the eastern slope of the Sierras in the distance behind them.

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Marian Schamp takes a break from moving her possessions as a tent city for the homeless in downtown Reno, Nevada, is consolidated on Oct. 6, 2008. The City of Reno set up the tent city when existing shelters became overcrowded as Nevada struggles with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
I began walking through the neat rows of tents and introduced myself to anyone I saw. Most people would barely speak to me beyond expressing that they definitely did not want their photo taken. It didn't bother me. If I was living there, I'm not sure I'd want my family or friends to see a photo of my circumstances.

Before long, I met an outgoing Texan, Tammy Tyra, who cleaned the large cabs of truckers at a local truck stop for whatever she could negotiate. Tyra quickly filled me in on the local drama of the day. The shelter officials were evicting all men from the tent city, sending them to a new shelter in Sparks or making sure they had someplace to stay. For couples both married and not, this was a serious bummer.

A bit later, I ran into Mary Jackson, who was carefully sweeping out her tent. With some gentle persuasion, she invited me into her tent. Mary works temporary jobs, usually for minimum wage, but rarely works more than 20 hours in a week. Her husband Howard, a veteran, has a part-time job but only makes minimum wage for the 18 hours he works every week. They've had no luck finding higher-paying jobs or even anything full-time. Even with their income and credit they can't find a place to rent and the weekly motels would quickly drain their cash.

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Geri Radway, center, chats with a friend as she returns to a tent city for the homeless in downtown Reno, Nevada, after working two jobs on Oct. 6, 2008. Radway moved to Reno from Salt Lake City, Utah, in search of work but struggled and only today started a full-time job to compliment her part-time job. She hopes to be able to move out of the homeless encampment within a few weeks. The City of Reno set up the tent city when existing shelters became overcrowded.
The tent city had a fair number of people that I would call "chronically homeless": people who aren't really motivated to find work or housing usually because of a drug or alcohol-abuse problem. Unlike previous stories I've done on the homeless, these "chronically homeless" did not make up the vast majority of the population of Reno's tent city. A large number of the residents were sober, hard-working people. Many even had jobs, but they were underemployed, like the Jacksons.

After talking to the Jacksons, others in the camp began to allow me to photograph them. They were pleased that I asked their permission first, complaining about the many other journalists - mainly TV - who had shown up and just started filming without even bothering to acknowledge the residents.

As the men packed up their belongings, I ran into Elizabeth Scheltens and her partner Anika Porter as they moved their tent closer to the remaining women. Scheltens had worked as a cocktail waitress at a local strip club and enjoyed employee housing at the adjoining hotel. Three months ago, she was laid-off from her job and simultaneously evicted from the hotel. She and Porter lived with relatives for awhile, but eventually found themselves living at the tent city.

© Max Whittaker/Getty Images
A tent city for the homeless sits in the shadow of high-rise casinos in downtown Reno, Nevada, Oct. 6, 2008. The City of Reno set up the tent city when existing shelters became overcrowded as Nevada struggles with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
As the sun began to set, I noticed a woman quietly walk into the compound wearing a simple but professional green dress, matching shoes and carrying a purse. I took her to be someone's relative but when she grabbed dinner from the shelter and began chatting with the other residents, I realized she was homeless. Geri Radway came from Salt Lake City five weeks ago in search of work but initially found her luck no better in Reno. Her savings exhausted, she took up residence in the tent city but was increasingly determined to find work. She found a part-time job and that day was her first at a new full-time position. She planned to work both jobs for the foreseeable future and was excited about the possibility of being able to afford an apartment in a few weeks.

Radway slipped into her tent to change and I struck up a conversation with her neighbor, Barbara Lehman. In July, Lehman broke her arm and, unable to work, lost her job. With no job and no medical insurance, her bills mounted and she soon found herself homeless. With an impish smile she peppered me with questions about my job but as the sky darkened she confessed that she had been having a bad day. A friend noted that she was normally very organized and clean,but today her hair was tousled and her tent in disarray. She cradled her head in her hands and I made a few pictures before stepping away as the nearby women in the compound circled and clinched her in a hug. A stern glance told me that pictures weren't welcome at this point. I looked up at the flashing neon signs of the casinos and thought I could almost hear the constant clink and rush of coins and chips as I walked back to my car.

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© Max Whittaker

Max Whittaker has covered U.S. presidential campaigns, war in Iraq and Afghanistan and poverty in California. A regular contributor to The New York Times, his work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, Fortune, Men's Journal, BusinessWeek, Le Monde and many other publications. He is based in Sacramento, California.

To see more of Whittaker's work, visit his Web site at:

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