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A Migrant Camp Once Home To Dust Bowl Refugees Now Shelters Homeless Women

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Laura Tsutsui
/
Valley Public Radio
Sharon Garrison volunteers to keep the original buildings from the Sunset Camp functional. She was born there in 1946, after her family migrated from Oklahoma to California in search of work.

This year is the 80th anniversary of John Steinbeck’s book, “The Grapes of Wrath.” In his novel, Steinbeck profiles the Joad family as they travel from Oklahoma to California, escaping the Dust Bowl, in search of work. Many families made this journey during the Depression era. In some communities, these Dust Bowl refugees were met with threats. But in others, like Weedpatch just south of Bakersfield, they were welcome.

Weedpatch has been renovated from its tent-cabin days, but still houses migrant farm laborers during the picking seasons. 

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Credit Laura Tsutsui / Valley Public Radio
Three buildings from the Sunset Camp are on the National Register of Historic Places. The rest of the camp, including the living quarters, has since been updated from tent-cabins to apartments.

This year, in the off-season, the camp is also sheltering displaced people, just as it did so long ago. 

Only a few of the original buildings remain, which are on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the protected buildings is a multi-purpose hall, where Saturday night dances and Sunday morning church services were held. At the front of the hall is the camp’s old sound system. 

“They would talk over it and everybody in the camp knew everybody's business,” says 73-year-old Sharon Garrison. She was born in the Weedpatch Camp, also called Sunset Camp, in 1946. 

Garrison leans on a cane as she maneuvers around the hall, where copies of “The Grapes of Wrath” are displayed, black and white photos line the walls, and items from the camp’s original inhabitants remain. 

“They would put their chickens in this, their crates, and then they would tie them on top of their car to bring their chickens to California,” says Garrison, gesturing to crates sitting on a stage. 

Garrison’s family came from Oklahoma in 1945. She still remembers the insults from local school kids: “They called us ‘Dirty Okies.’”

Now Garrison is a volunteer with the Dust Bowl Committee, which makes repairs, raises money, and gives tours of the old site. She’s been doing this work for 30 years.

The buildings she’s helping preserve were actually featured in the “Grapes of Wrath” film, when the Joad family arrived at the Weedpatch Camp. 

Garrison says when her family came to California, they were practically homeless; she says some relatives lived on a nearby canal until they could move into the camp. So, when the Kern Housing Authority came to the Lamont Chamber of Commerce earlier this year to talk about opening the camp for the winter to people who are homeless, she spoke up. 

“I wanted to remind them that 80 years ago, we needed a place to stay. We needed help.”

And she’s glad she did. Now for the first time in decades, Weedpatch is temporarily housing people who would otherwise be homeless. 

“We knew we were doing meaningful work by opening this program and making this an opportunity for women transitioning out of homelessness,” says Heather Kimmel with the Kern Housing Authority.

Kimmels says Weedpatch was an obvious choice because it’s empty for four months out of the year when not housing farmworkers.

“It really broadened the scope of what we were doing,” says Kimmel. “To understand the deeper, underlying meaning for the community here, and to come full circle for the site that once housed homeless people migrating during the Dust Bowl era, and now doing it for homeless women today.”

Mechelle Walls is one of the women who has found opportunity here. The 57 year old was living at the Bethany Homeless Shelter in Bakersfield before she moved to the camp. She’s sharing a three-bedroom apartment with her 18-year-old daughter, and she’s excited to have somewhere to enjoy the holidays.

“Christmas is one of my favorites, and usually I start in October,” she says. “Having six kids, you know, Christmas is big for a mom.”

 

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Credit Laura Tsutsui / Valley Public Radio
Mechelle Walls moved into an apartment at the Sunset Camp in early December. She's slowly adjusting as she looks for more permanent housing with a voucher.

Walls arrived two weeks ago, but like the other women in this community, she has a housing voucher. But the Kern Housing Authority says even with a voucher, it can take between 45 to 90 days to find a place. The Authority hopes giving people a temporary reprieve at the camps will reduce their search time by up to 30 days.

 

For Walls, the stability seems to be helping: “Already we have two prospects, and tomorrow hopefully we’ll get two more,” she says.

Once housed, Walls plans to finish her nursing degree and maybe even start a group home. In the meantime, she’s glad she has shelter, something Sharon Garrison can relate to personally.

Back at the museum, Garrison points to an old quilt on the wall and recalls the names of some of the families who lived here 70 years ago.

“It’s a friendship quilt from a church; each block has a family name,” says Garrison.

She says she understands that some people don’t like the idea of having a homeless shelter in their community, the “not in my backyard” mentality.

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Credit Laura Tsutsui / Valley Public Radio
The hall at the Sunset Camp is on the National Register of Historic Places. It now functions as a museum.

“And yet if we don't address it, it's going to be in all of our backyards,” she says.

So, she’s willing to welcome these women to the backyard of the place where she grew up. Because of this camp, her family made a life for themselves in Bakersfield. That’s what she hopes for the people who live here today. 

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