Homelessness is a parks issue, too

It’s early on a weekday morning when I pull into the campground. Not the popular one. The one down south along the river. I expect it to be empty of all but the camp host. It’s not.

That one site still has a camper in it. I check the drop box at the kiosk in hopes of there being a registration slip with payment in it. There isn’t.

Most public campgrounds have a two-week stay limit, after which a camper must leave the park for a specified period. In the case of Des Moines County parks, campers have to go somewhere else for at least seven days before their two-week limit resets. These rules are in place for a few reasons. One, it prevents campgrounds from becoming permanent housing sites. Second, the churn of campers often results in sites sitting empty for at least a day, almost always on weekdays, during which maintenance crews can mow, clean, and maintain the site before the next camper shows up. Third, it creates opportunities for others to be able to get a site in busy campgrounds.

We often get requests to allow long term stays in our campgrounds. With all the construction projects happening in our area, there are many – and soon to be lots more – travelling workers that live in campers while building highways, fertilizer plants, munitions facilities and others. To date, we’ve not been inclined to waive the two-week rule. In the interest of demand, however, our board is now at least taking it under consideration.

But on this particular weekday morning, the camper in question was not a traveling worker. They were homeless.

The situation is difficult, to say the least. In fact, it’s often easier to find somewhere to humanely house an angry dog than it is to find alternative lodging for a homeless family living in a dilapidated camper. Often there are mental health, substance abuse, or criminal issues that preclude them from going other places, shelters included. Even if they are employed, their debt situation may be such that they cannot afford to scrape together the required deposit and first month’s rent needed to secure one of the few available rentals in town. Thus, living in a $300 salvage camper for $20/night seems to be a reasonable alternative.
This pic isn't actually from any of our parks, but it's an accurate representation.

And it is, for two weeks. Or until even the $20 nightly fee becomes too much.

That’s when we park managers find ourselves in the difficult situation, stuck between enforcing policy and the desire to help our fellow human. This is a simplified version of the conversation that happens almost every time:

“I’m sorry, you’ve exceeded your stay limit here, you need to leave.”

“I can’t. I don’t have a truck to pull my camper somewhere else. So-and-so towed it here for me, but they can’t come get it until next week.” Or alternatively, “my truck is broke down and I can’t afford to fix it.”

“You also owe a hundred dollars for the last five nights you’ve been here.”

“I don’t have it.” This is sometimes followed by a vague reference to when they might have the funds, followed by an inevitably sad story of how they ended up in their current situation.

It’s a painful, heartbreaking situation to be in. What do you do, have their camper towed and impounded? Where will they go then? How much worse of a situation will that put them in financially? What about the kids? School? Transportation? It gets messy in a hurry.

Almost every time we have homeless people show up at a campground, we end up spending somewhere between a few and many hours connecting them to various support resources in the community, tracking them down to try to collect payment, or in some cases, cleaning up after they leave. And through repetition, there’s risk of becoming jaded to it all and losing touch with the human factor. I admit to some of that effect on me this year and I hate that. Parks are for everyone and if our parks can help someone through a particularly difficult time, I want to always be proud to be a part of that. But there are limitations to everything. This is one of them.

I applaud the city of Burlington’s recent proactive approach to addressing homelessness in our community. There are some fantastic organizations around here that offer invaluable resources. Certainly, we’ve connected with many of them through the years. But navigating the “system” of it all is inefficient, unclear, and time intensive. If we could have an easy to understand and easy to navigate workflow, a single point of communication, and maybe even some training for front line employees like us, I know my team would certainly appreciate it. If such a system existed, I can’t begin to estimate the number of individuals and families facing hard times that may be impacted. I know we only encounter a small fraction in the parks.

When I look down into an empty pay box, I don’t want my reaction to be a groan of despair. When I confront those in my park that are struggling through hard times, I don’t want to just make demands for resources they don’t have. I want to also offer them some recourse, some hope of better days ahead. If we as a community can come up with clear, efficient ways of doing that, we all win.