|The recession has hit California hard, with unemployment at 12.7 per cent [GALLO/GETTY]
They call it Tortilla Flats - a haphazard cluster of tents and tarps sprawling across a sidewalk and a vacant lot smack in the middle of Fresno, a city of 500,000 in California's Central valley.
The tent city, reminiscent of the Depression-era "Hoovervilles" depicted by author John Steinbeck in his classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, is home to a shifting population of about 70 homeless people.
That's where I met a couple named Kerry and John. They asked me not to use their last names. They live in a cramped two-person tent strewn with blankets and clothes. Both are native to the Valley.
And both are now homeless for the first time in their lives.
Kerry was a preschool teacher until a year ago, when her world caved in. "I got sick," she told me. "Ulcerative colitis. Ended up losing my job, and ended up here. Ran out of health insurance and money and this is what happened."
John, a shy young man who used to work as a barber, told a rambling story about bad breaks, crooked employers and jobs that didn’t pan out. Now he passes the time playing with two pigeons he rescued and tamed as pets.
"Gets to the point where time does not mean much anymore," he said.
"Time is just time. We’re just waiting for the big break- a chance to rebuild our lives."
Homeless camps like this one have formed in several places around California.
People here have formed a kind of community, complete with a "town council" of elders who meet nightly.
Many of those living in the camps are chronically homeless men with mental issues or drug and alcohol problems. But many others are former members of the working or middle classes who have fallen off the economic ladder.
"It's a real shock when you come down here," Kerry said.
"You don't know whether people will befriend you or not. People have, luckily. But there are a lot of dangers out here - everywhere you look. Especially at night."
Mark Arax, a third-generation resident who has written extensively about the Central valley, took me on a driving tour of the fields around Fresno.
Vineyards heavy with table grapes and raisins stretched across the horizon, along with vast orchards of almond, pistachio and fig trees.
"We're standing in the richest farm belt in the world," Arax said, "And yet the poverty here is overwhelming."
"Fresno has the most concentrated poverty of any city in the country. New Orleans is second. So there is a paradox to this place - this bounty side by side, cheek by jowl with the poverty."
Another paradox: In the fast-food- and car-dominated culture of the valley, the biggest health problem for the poor is not hunger, but obesity.
Genoveva Islas-Hooker runs the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention
Program. She walked with me along a major thoroughfare in town called Kings'
Canyon. Heavy traffic zipped past kilometre after kilometre of McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut outlets.
"We like to talk about it as an obesogenic environment, an environment that is
really promoting obesity," Islas-Hooker said.
Fatty, salty, and sugary fast food is actually cheaper for poor people to feed
their families with than healthy vegetables or grains.
Government food support programs emphasise filling, calorie-heavy foods like cheese, milk and bread. And the valley's sprawl, lack of sidewalks and paucity of playgrounds and parks discourages exercise.
Furthemore, high crime and gang activity lead many fearful parents to keep their children at home, parked in front of the TV with a litre of sugary soda.
Obesity-linked diseases are sky-rocketing. Islas-Hooker says doctors now see kids in their teens with type-two diabetes, an illness normally found in people in their forties and fifties.
"We are talking about heart disease, certain types of cancers that are strongly associated with obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, all with direct links to obesity," she said.
"They're killers. People are dying."
Health care slashed
Now, because of a huge budget shortfall, California has slashed health care programmes for the poor. There have been major cuts to a state insurance programme and to the Healthy Families programme, which is geared to the working poor.
Supplemental assistance for the blind and disabled and day care centres for Alzheimer's Disease patients have also been eliminated.
In Merced, north of Fresno, I met Mike Sullivan, CEO of the Golden Valley Health non-profit company, which operates 33 low cost clinics for uninsured and impoverished patients.
Many of Golden Valley’s clients are migrant farm workers or undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
Describing the cuts approved by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sullivan said: "He cut medical benefits, he eliminated directly programs like the farmworkers'
programme and another programme in California for poor uninsured Californians.
"That was devastating to Golden valley and all of the safety net health care providers in the state."
Sullivan said he is troubled by the attitude of the state government toward the people affected by the programmes that have been cut. There was little debate or consideration of the effects the cuts would have on people’s lives, he said.
When I suggested that the word "abandonment" came to mind, Sullivan replied: "Yeah, that's a good way to frame it, I think."
Arax traces the roots of California’s current crisis back to a time over thirty years ago, when voters in a statewide referendum shackled the government's ability to raise property taxes.
"A state as intricate and vast as this cannot be run without taxes," he said.
"The government needs the ability to tax. And when we lost those property taxes we lost the great base that had been used to build the dams, the highways and the great UC (University of California) educational system.
"We are seeing tougher times here than we have seen in a long time - 3 or 4 generations. The ability to fix it - the ability of government to fix it - is getting tougher and tougher. We are broken in a very profound way."
Back in Tortilla Flats, the sun is about to set. Night is the worst time, John and
Kerry told me, when the rats come out and human predators lurk.
John and Kerry lit a fire in a battered barbecue grill, warming their hands over
the flames. Darkness is covering the Central valley - and all of California.