Who Lives in Tent City?

Homelessness and the growth of tent cities, now confirmed in all 50 states, is a national crisis. Savannah’s homeless population has hovered for decades at approximately 4,000, which includes nearly 300 veterans and 1,000 chronically homeless individuals. Roughly 160 people live outdoors year-round. Another 500-600 shuffle between shelters and the wild.

In a 2013 survey of Georgia’s 75 counties, Chatham County ranked tops with two others for the greatest number of homeless individuals. The same survey showed a severe shortage of shelter beds to lodge them.

“The recession has ended for those on Wall Street, but definitely hasn’t for those on Main Street,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.  While the nationwide poverty rate is 14.8 percent, Savannah’s is nearly double at 26 percent, which is higher, too, than Georgia’s rate of 18 percent. In some Savannah communities, the number jumps to 50 percent.

“I’d rather freeze out here than go to the shelters,” says Oklahoma-native Levi Swain who has been homeless since 2012. “A young and strapping man like me? Another man lying beside me – they put the beds so close together there – and trying to wrap his hands over me?” Swain is a Navy veteran and has lived in Savannah for 16 years.

Men comprise the majority of tent dwellers. There are no children. Unsheltered women are more physically at risk, so the few who live in tent cities are usually coupled.

“We all watch out for each other,” says Billy Sears, a jovial, middle-aged man with long grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses, describing the unspoken code of conduct to guard each other’s belongings and physical safety.

To read more about the residents of Tent City and how they got there, pick up the April/May issue of South magazine.