A Tale of Tent Cities

Hoovervilles! Hobo Junctions! Shaky Acres! However you slur it, Americans are once again embracing DIY squalor. Across the country armies of the nouveau impoveriche are huddling around the soothing flicker of oil-drum fires to share the wisdom of their forebums and re-learn the ways of bean and can.

Blame for this situation is falling on numerous targets - the economy, bad planning, the credit crisis, or interest only mortgages that wouldn't move buyers any closer to actually owning a home if they lived to be six hundred. In truth there is but one cause: poverty - of imagination! Come on, this is the future! Robots mop our floors! Lasers amuse our cats! Drug induced boners provide hours of passionless sex! We can't come up with anything zippier than the eighty-year-old notion of throwing up shanty towns next to the railroad tracks? This is not the dream of a ruined America promised us by Hollywood.

Of course, no one expects the bottom 99 percent to be re-settled in slickly automated edens a la "Logan's Run" or "The Island," but there are dozens of end-of-the-world lifestyles within easy reach of economic refugees on a budget. How about a dust-choked wasteland overrun by zombies? A blasted highway abandoned but for dozens of psychopathic crossbow-welding hot-rodders? An abandoned town infested with feral dogs? Any of these is preferable to shuffling around a drowsy cluster of third-hand camping supplies, wearing tattered fingerless gloves and pulling on a hip-flask of thermometer drainings. Why forsake the exotic surreality of a tomorrow-gone-wrong to inhabit a colorized version of "The Grapes of Wrath?"

Yet, somehow, distopian paradise always seems out of reach. Maybe it's the fault of misplaced American self-reliance. Leaving the dispossessed responsible for constructing their own encampments only fuels the illusion that they are "outsiders." While it has been tried in the past - the Warsaw Ghetto, the Molokai Leper Colony - these efforts were only short-lived solutions. Therefore, federal intervention must be called for.

The government has already shown itself handy at rescuing the imperiled when it averted the financial fraud industry's recent bonus crisis. But unlike rewarding well-connected incompetents with public funds, sheltering the differently monied does not require just cash but compassion as well. Incredibly, tent cities have become tourist attractions, drawing sight-seers, videographers and the press. Instead of gawking at the homeless, we must respect their shame by guarding their privacy while still preserving the sense that they're part of our shared hellmare. Remotely monitored labor camps, glop-filled-pod farms, or even a warren of underground corpse-to-cracker factories would all serve to futuristically warehouse the hopelessly destitute while shielding them from anyone selfish enough to document their condition.

If the government chooses not to act, there are still plenty of options. The following suggestions are less cinematically apocalyptic, but still better than a home that can be forcibly entered with a pair of nail-scissors:

- FEMA trailers. Maybe those formaldehyde-soaked single-wides weren't good enough for the picky Katrina victims, but they weren't seeing the big picture. After all, if formaldehyde can keep Lenin looking May Day fresh 75 years after his death, think what it'll do for your completion.

- Live in a cave. America is punctured with thousands of geologic wonder-holes, home to countless legions of bats who's guano makes an incomparably soft natural carpet. Bonus: the cave air's overpowering scent of rabies will keep most predators at bay.

- Re-populate the Anasazi pueblos. These mysterious Southwestern cliff-side cities have been uninhabited for centuries. Where did those noble first Americans go when their water ran out and the crops failed? Some think they resorted to cannibalistic rituals, or fell victim to demonic forces. Who cares? What are you, afraid of ghosts? Free is free. Don't be such a sissy.

- Live in your car. Think back to the carefree bliss of falling asleep in the back seat as a kid on the ride home from grandma's house. When better to recapture that cozy sense of security than as an unsuccessful adult?

Remember, at this point you literally have nothing left to lose. Take chances! Journey to the poles! Live on the ocean floor! Or become a squatter in one of the millions of foreclosed properties once occupied by folks who fell for the same mortgage scam you did.