Help the Children journeyed to Slab City, March 24th, and distributed over 350 boxes filled with water and hygiene items to seniors and homeless individuals. Traveling to Slab City brought a great deal of insight to the little talked about makeshift community and the extreme level of suffering taking place across America today.
Slab City is a camp next to the Salton Sea, used by RV owners and squatters from across North America and the world. The name stems from the concrete slabs and pylons that remain after most of the marines abandoned the military base that once occupied the space. The marines that initially stayed behind in the closed camp appear to have set the tone for inhabitance ever since.
Since the housing bubble burst, nearly 4 million American homes have been lost to foreclosure. Now 1.6 million children will be homeless at some time during the year -- 38 percent more than at the start of the recession. As CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy explains, unemployment has driven some families to the southern California desert.
Near the shores of California's Salton Sea, where the road gives way to barren desert, is a place where many have gone to park their troubled lives. Bill Ammon has lived in what's known as "Slab City" for 13 years. "This piece of property is public-owned," he said, "and it's so useless, so desolate, that nobody wants it and they let us be here."
Slab City takes its name from the concrete slabs it sits on -- all that's left from a World War II training camp. Now it is home base for more and more people who can't afford to live anywhere else.
There are nearly 2,000 people living in Slab City, many refugees of the Great Recession.
"It's just whole [other] world out here," said Vince Neill. "It's not like modern-day society."
Neill parked his RV here two months ago along with his wife and six kids. He recently lost his audio-visual business and their home in Modesto, Calif.
"I would apply to 30-40 jobs a day online," said Neill. "And there's just nothing." He could no longer afford to stay at an RV park and heard about Slab City. The family lives on food stamps and money from odd jobs. "Did you ever imagine ending up here?" asked Tracy. "No, no," said Neill. "I always wore a shirt and tie, and worked in an office. And had a nice car and house. But we've lost pretty much everything."
A field of debris is what passes for a neighborhood in Slab City. There is also a church, a music venue called the Range, and even an Internet cafe. But electricity comes from the sun, there is no sewer, no running water. A hole in the ground is the only shower for miles.
"When we moved here, it was like the end of the world for me," said Andy Moore, 12, whom has a sister, Franky, 14. Their mom told CBS News they came here because she cannot afford to heat their house in Washington State this winter. Andy worried what her friends at school would think. "I feel a little bit embarrassed about it," said Andy, "because they're probably going to start thinking different of you like, 'Oh, they're really poor and they have to live out here and they can't afford to get a house or a trailer park.'"
Parents like Vince Neill are simply worried about keeping their families safe. "Twelve-gauge is usually what everybody uses out here," he said, because theft and drugs are part of Slab City life. "I'm the nicest man you'll ever meet, unless you're messing with my family." Neill is hoping his family won't be in Slab City for long and plans to look for work in Los Angeles this spring.
There are no signs leading to Slab City. From Los Angeles you head east deep into the desert, and then south, past the Salton Sea. For years, a diverse group of people has been drawn to the abandoned Marine base, but the troubled economy has driven even more travelers to the place dubbed "The Last Free Place in America." Following the tire tracks of countless RVs, trailers, vans and campers, you pass a landscape of the vehicles that have taken root here, their tires now soft on the desert floor.
"You kind of give yourself your own address out here, and we're 100 Low Road," resident Vince Neill says. Neill parked his aging brown and tan RV here a few months ago."We all live in there, me and the wife and six of the kids," he says, referring to his family's RV.
The makeshift home is anchored by a long concrete slab, encircled by a couple abandoned trailers and a speed boat filled with bottles and cans. The Neills came here from the Sacramento area. A few puppies are running in circles as a teen in a pink tank top sweeps up debris from recent winds.
"I clean up around the slab, I treat it like as if I was living in a house," Allie Neill says. The 18-year-old is Vince Neill's oldest daughter."We're in, umm, what's that word? Transition?" Allie says. "We also came out here to experience life in Slab City because we heard so much about it."
Slab City gets its name from the numerous concrete foundations that dot the land, the only reminder of Camp Dunlap, a World War II Marine artillery training base. The state is somewhat of an absentee landlord on this 600-acre patch. Population estimates are anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand people. A nearby RV has a generator. There's no running water, no power lines, no sewage service and no trash pickup, which can give the place a Mad Max post-apocalyptic feel. Rusted bicycles and box springs peek through small mountains of twisted metal.
Down Low Road at the Oasis Club, a few residents are sitting at an outdoor table rolling their own cigarettes. A camper truck piled high with belongings approaches. They look up warily.
"There's people, before you take anybody's picture you want to ask them to make sure its ok, cause there are people out here being stalked," a resident known as "Tennessee" Ken Freeland says.
Freeland is a man of undetermined age and background in a cowboy hat and plaid shirt. This is his fourth year living in Slab City.
"Out here, nobody bothers you," Freeland says. "You treat people like you want to be treated. Everybody gets along great."
A yearly membership to the Oasis Club costs $20. Coffee is served from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Lynne Bright runs things at the club. The 55-year old says some people who come to Slab City have a misconception about the place.
"They think that, come to Slab City and you will be provided for, and that's the furthest from the truth," Bright says. "This little piece of ground that you're standing on is free. That's all."
Everything you need to survive, from propane to water, you need to buy or bring with you. Bright, a former public service employee, met her husband here three years ago.
"I like the community. I like what I do," she says. "I like being not part of the stuff out there in the world. I like being unplugged."
Toward the end of Low Road the desert neighborhood starts to change. There's no trash and the motor homes are more expensive. Rick Lee recently sold his house in Texas and bought one here.
"It was better for me to just go ahead and take the loss and sell it," Lee says. "Since I been out here, I've heard quite a few people that's done the same."
Michael Depraida operates Slab City's pirate radio station out of his fully equipped 1995 polished and solar-powered Airstream. He's an artist from New York.
"Up until 2008 I was doing very well, and in 2008 the market collapsed for me," Depraida says. He still makes art work and sells custom designed T-shirts for the increasing number of tourists who drive by. "There's a great sense of community here," he says.
The snowbirds made up one of the first communities here years ago, mostly retirees that flocked here in the winter. In fact, Low Road gets its name from a club called Loners on Wheels. Gas barbeques and lawn furniture take their place in front of fully equipped RVs. Sixty-two-year-old Barbara Russell agrees that it doesn't look like the rest of Slab City.
"A lot of those are young people who have run away from this or that," she says. "We haven't run away — we've run to."
The sky has turned a shade of turquoise and in a few more weeks the desert flowers will bloom. Come May, temperatures can reach over 120 degrees here. That's when the snowbirds will depart. And only the rattlesnakes, scorpions and Slab City's most hardy residents will remain.
Are They Allowed To Live There?
The land Slab City is on is owned and managed by the state of California. Camp Dunlap, the former World War II base that left the concrete "slabs" that form the foundation of Slab City, was given back to the state in 1961 and subsequently dismantled. The state still owns the land, and the people living in Slab City are technically "squatters," but the government has left the settlement alone. There are no services, so the state is not spending any money to keep the place up. But garbage and human waste has become a problem in the area, which is bothering some of the neighbors. "In my opinion, the county should come and check and make them clean it if they're going to stay there," says Alma Holcomb, a longtime resident of the closest town, Niland, who works at a general store there. "Because they make us clean our yard." At the same time, Holcomb says the Slab City residents bring a lot of business to Niland, especially when the snowbirds arrive in the winter.
Norma Wright, owner of Bobby D's Pizzeria in Niland, agrees. "We really need those people to come, it's good for our businesses." Natalie Jones Sources: California State Military Museum, Slab City Organization.
Apocalyptic squattersville for recession refugees
They come to Slab City, out of work and low on hope, to endure heat, sandstorms and life on the edge.
How George Carranco wound up in Slab City, a squattersville at the end of the earth, is a story for these hard times. Carranco, an ex-Marine and jack-of-all-trades, lost his job at a factory in San Diego when it shut down, lost his apartment when he couldn’t pay the rent, lost his temporary home when the city towed his van, and lost the van for good when the parking fees climbed to unattainable heights. More than a thousand dollars — might as well have been a million.
Three years of bad breaks later, Carranco had had enough. He revived an ’83 Dodge camper that he picked up for free and, with his girlfriend and five Chihuahuas, headed east, 155 miles from San Diego, to where the roads give up and the desert takes over. Unwittingly, the 56-year-old Carranco had joined the latest wave of migrants to Slab City: refugees of the recession. Beaten down by a brutal economy, they’re straggling to this desolate outpost of societal dropouts to recover their wits and duck the national malaise.
Of course, Slab City is no city, and no picnic. Some 640 acres of state-owned sand and scrub near the Salton Sea, it offers no electricity, no sewerage, no running water. Once, it was a Marine training base. When it was decommissioned, nothing was left but the concrete slabs where barracks once stood. Gradually, people with souls to mend or demons to kill started camping on the slabs.
Maybe after the apocalypse the world would look like Slab City. Slabbers live in trailers, trucks and old buses scattered as though a twister had tossed them up and dropped them. Power comes from solar panels, batteries and portable generators — you’re rich here if you have one. Signs and structures are made from tires, wires and spare parts.
Until recently, only about 75 to 100 people called Slab City home all year, and they have their own sad stories to tell, usually involving breakups, bankruptcies or booze. But these days, they’re more interested in talking about the newcomers, who’ve swelled the ranks of the year-round population to about 200.
It says something about the state of the nation, slabbers will tell you, shaking their heads, when Slab City is becoming more of a refuge for the down and out than ever before.
“Some people come by foot,” said Ben Morofsky, who is 49 and has lived in Slab City for 22 years. “They’ve lost everything.”
Tent cities started cropping up all over the country once the recession began taking its toll, and a couple, like Dignity Village in Portland, Ore., or Nickelsville, in Seattle, are officially sanctioned by city officials. Dignity Village even makes prospective residents fill out applications
But there is no squat in the country like Slab City. Here, residents make the rules as they go along, and county and state officials let them be unless real trouble happens. Rarely does a sheriff happen by. It’s even rarer still that one is summoned. Utter detachment from the rest of society may be Slab City’s main attraction.
While there are no official statistics on Slab City — no one counts who comes and goes — judging from interviews here, the newcomers are trekking to the slabs from all over. Seattle to Staten Island, San Diego to Tennessee. Single men, mostly, in their 40s and 50s. But couples, too. Even a few families.
“It’s not the best place for kids,” said James Edward, who moved to the slabs nine months ago from Montgomery, Ala., with his wife and two children, 11 and 14 years old. Edward, 38 years old, was working as a regional manager for the Applebee’s restaurant chain, he said, for many hours and not enough pay. He looked and looked, he said, but could not find a better job.
So he and his wife decided to ride out the economy at the slabs. People come here out of desperation. But like Edward, many also want or need a reprieve from the newest normal, where workers toil longer for the same pay in jobs they hate but fear losing. They’ve heard of Slab City through the 2007 film version of “Into the Wild,” and like the rich pageant of life the movie displays. “Into the Wild’s” Slab City is a hobo-boho Shangri-La. People live free and happy, selling books to tourists for a living, cooking communal meals. They take visitors to Salvation Mountain, a three-story sculpture made of clay, straw and paint that stands near the entrance to the slabs. They have nightly concerts, strum guitars, clink beers around warming fires.
That’s the Slab City that a 25-year-old woman who hitchhiked to Slab City from Kansas wanted when she decided she didn’t want to worry about paying bills all the time. It’s the Slab City that attracted a 48-year-old man who had left his landscaping business in Staten Island for a relationship in Oregon that failed, leaving him with nothing. “Into the Wild” showed him, he said, that there was a happy alternative to going back to Staten Island a bum and moving in with his parents.
Slabbers are friendly. And Slab City does hold weekly concerts. But it is hardly a romantic life. Only the strong or the mad survive here. During the summer, temperatures reach 125 degrees in the shade, and the runty Joshua trees are precious and few. Just living is a full-time job. Water, which residents buy in the nearby town, is always being hauled, boiled or bottled. Everything is rationed, and chores like washing dishes or cooking take twice as long as in the real world. Bathing is a luxury, one indulged only when very necessary.
The broken-down town of Niland, five miles west, provides a grocery store and post office. For gas or more shopping, slabbers head to Calipatria, 12 miles south, Brawley, 25 miles south, or across the border to Mexicali, about 50 miles down, where a dollar still buys more than it does in the States.
Most slabbers survive on government checks, food stamps and donations from ministries. Come winter, when hundreds of trailered retirees, or snowbirds, descend on the slabs for the season, the regulars make money doing odd jobs for them. Some newcomers come with a little money in their pockets. Others, like Carranco, rely on the kindness of slabbers.
Carranco, with no cellphone or post office box, had been waiting for word from his girlfriend, who had an actual job and a place to stay near Palm Springs, for nearly two months. Then she came back, broke up with him, took their Chihuahuas and his food stamp card.
“Thank goodness for charity,” Carranco said, rocking himself on the remains of a recliner outside his lean-to.
It was 105 degrees, getting dark and he had no source of power save for a solar light on top of his camper and batteries for his portable stereo. A wiry man with sharp cheekbones, black hair to his shoulders and a growing beard, Carranco looks like an apostle from Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” After a couple of months, new slabbers look like they’ve lived here forever. The men grow beards, the women go gray. People age in dog years. Even the children.
Minister Patrick McFarland, who runs the Slab City Christian Center, a trailer more popular for its daily bread offerings than its sermons, has watched newcomers flee as if being chased.
“It’s kind of a raw experience,” McFarland said. “People don’t expect how hard it is.” He and his wife ran a ministry for outlaw bike groups in Joshua Tree, Calif., before moving here a year and a half ago. Then he was diagnosed with bladder cancer and had to leave for treatment. Back for six months, McFarland still seemed to be adjusting.
He was wondering, he asked an Imperial County sheriff’s deputy who had led an out-of-town visitor to the slabs, whether he could carry a firearm if it was concealed, or displayed? Neither, without a permit, the deputy said.
“Then, I could carry a knife, I guess,” McFarland said.
The Christian Center had been burglarized a few times, Carranco said, as had his own encampment. The old-timers blamed newcomers who haven’t learned slabber rules. Jerry Ray Jones, who has lived 62 years the hard way, 26 of them in Slab City, said any article should warn newcomers away.
When he arrived, he said, with a story too long to tell, only about 10 people lived in Slab City. They were bona fide loner types. Crack, meth and liquor brought more people to the slabs, and other reasons. Outright poverty was never No. 1 before now.
You’re a real slabber if you can stick out more than one summer, the saying goes here. But Mary Dillon and her husband had lasted three summers — “Into the Wild” brought them — and they never felt at home.
They were in Niland, buying ice and supplies to take on the road. Dillon, who is 52, said she and her husband were going back to Washington State. They had just sold their trailer, were checking their mail, and were taking off.
Dillon’s husband, a 66-year-old retiree, didn’t want to talk or give his name. He said it was just better that way, given the topic was Slab City.
“We don’t want no trouble,” Dillon said, though she managed to give a sheriff’s deputy an earful about some goings-on at the slabs. “We just want a normal life again.” They had 1,300 miles to drive, and were looking forward to it.
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