"Slab City" a desert haven for recession's victims

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.

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"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, who 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.

  • Ben Tracy

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