“It’s not quite Hoovervilles, but it’s getting there,” says Leonard Heumann, a housing policy professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, referencing the massive tent cities and shantytowns erected during the Great Depression.
But the great outdoors is not a last resort just for the cash-strapped: Wal-Mart tent sales are up 36 percent over last year, and campgrounds are reporting a surge in requests for primitive campsites as Americans forgo beach condos to find their inner Thoreau.
At a time of downscaled dreams, it’s a harbinger of how closely many Americans are walking the knife-edge between a roof and a tent flap. But for many, like Tammy Renault, who lives in a tent with a husband and four kids, there’s virtue to be found even in a muddy tent floor.
“This tells you what you’re made of,” says Ms. Renault, a devout Christian whose faith has been steeled, not diminished, by her family’s crisis.
Her story is a snapshot of the American edge: After the family moved to Tennessee, her husband Troy’s contracting business failed. The choice soon became paying the rent or the electric bill. They set up camp here nearly four months ago. The first week of August, three of the four kids started school, with one of them, Ty, waiting at the front of the campground for the school bus.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) estimates that this recession will create 1.5 million new homeless – nearly double the current number. Half of those people will exist outside the shelter system – in cars, tents, campers, or sleeping bags under highway overpasses. (Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the homelessness alliance.)