YAKIMA, Wash. -- Nadine Beresford thought she solved her homelessness problem when she put $200 down on a 1974 Dodge Camper nearly two months ago, but hasn’t found a trailer or RV park that will rent her a space.
“They say there’s not enough room or that my camper is too old,” the 69-year-old said one recent morning.
She parks her camper outside a homeless encampment — Camp Hope — behind the former Kmart on East Nob Hill Boulevard, where she’s not allowed to sleep in it overnight because the camp lacks required permits and services for RV hookups.
Instead, she sleeps in one of the large military tents in the camp with several other homeless people.
“It’s not an easy thing to do because I wake up freezing — we all do because they don’t have heat yet,” she said.
Camp organizers soon will install portable heaters for the winter.
Beresford is among a segment of the homeless population relying on old campers, RVs and even cars for shelter. Most of them are living on meager monthly disability or Social Security payments.
But with most RV parks full or unwilling to allow older models inside, there’s no place for them to park for extended periods of time. They park in one area for a while, but are forced to move after being issued a tow notice, a repeating scenario for most.
Beresford avoided that by going to the homeless encampment, where she’s allowed to bring her three small schnauzers into the tent to sleep overnight.
She returns to her camper during the day.
“I just sit in here and read during the day,” she said of her camper. “Sometimes I go and socialize at the camp, but at night I have to pack up my dogs and stay in the tent.”
RV parks are feeling the same squeeze as the housing market. Yakima had a 0.8 percent vacancy rate among rental apartments this spring.
RV park owners are constantly calling one another in effort to help potential tenants find a space. Everyone’s usually booked.
Wendy Hollingsworth, owner of Circle H RV Park on South 18th Street in Yakima, said she recently turned away a family because she had no spaces available for long-term stays. She has 75 spaces, with several reserved for regular seasonal guests and her long-term spaces are all occupied.
To the north in Naches at Trout Meadows, KJ Lim gets calls daily from people seeking a space, but he has to turn them away. He has only 22 spaces at his park and they’re occupied with long-term tenants.
“I was getting almost five, six calls a day, ‘do you have space?’ ” he said. “They keep asking, ‘where should I go?’ I couldn’t answer them because all the RV parks are full.”
The shortage of RV space is driving those with limited resources into areas where they’re not wanted, Hollingsworth said.
“There’s a definite need and it’s kind of forced them into people’s backyards and parks and stuff,” she said.
This past summer, several homeless people parked their RVs and trailers in front of Sarg Hubbard Park on North 18th Street just east of Walmart in Terrace Heights.
The public park is operated by the Yakima Greenway and attracts joggers, cyclists and in-line skaters from across the Valley.
Those living in their RVs and trailers along the park would leave for short periods when issued tow notices, but eventually would return.
For the past month, they’ve been gone.
Kelly Whitmore, who lives in her Ford Taurus station wagon, still parks in the area, but says she hasn’t seen the others in more than a month.
“Everybody split and I don’t know where they went,” she said one recent afternoon.
She goes to Yakima Sportsman State Park off University Avenue and Gun Club Road in Terrace Heights during the day, but cannot stay overnight because she doesn’t have a tent, camper or RV.
“I can take a shower there, it’s pretty nice,” she said of the park. She lives on $750 a month she gets in disability; she’s been sleeping in her car the past year.
“I cry myself to sleep most of the time because I have no place to go,” she said. “People drive by and heckle at you, thinking that you want to be here. I don’t want to be here. I’d like to be happy, and this is not happy — not even close to it.”
Standards for RV parks
There’s more to the problem than simply a lack of space. Many parks won’t accept older RVs and trailers, citing potential safety issues or that they’re rough looking and are a nuisance.
Outdated wiring and failed appliances such as furnaces have been a problem in the past with older models, Hollingsworth said. People use space heaters that have led to fires in the past, she said.
“We’ve had several catch on fire, and there’s not that much room between spaces and nearby RVs could be damaged if there’s a fire,” she said. “Then they blame the park.”
In 2007, her park enacted a policy barring models manufactured before 1990, Hollingsworth said.
The older ones also are usually worn and rough looking, which could impact business, she added.
“The older ones show their age and the people with $500,000 RVs don’t want to park next to them,” Hollingsworth said. “I don’t know how to say it nicer — it is a business.”
Not in my backyard
Yakima City Council member Kay Funk says potential solutions are stymied by a “not in my backyard” attitude in the community.
“I think that this population will always be among us and we — our society — needs to make a place for these people, make a place for people who are the poorest of the poor or have other difficult problems.”
Those include substance abuse, mental and emotional illness.
Beresford admits that alcoholism is part of what’s kept her on the streets. She said she began drinking heavily in her mid-30s, then years later got sober, and came to the area to stay with her daughter.
But she relapsed three years ago after seven years of sobriety. That led to clashes with her daughter and son-in-law and left her without a place to live.
“Since, I’ve just been hopping around, place to place,” Beresford said, explaining she lives on $650 a month in Social Security benefits and food stamps.
She said she’s been sober the past two months.
Despite disagreements, she said her daughter picks her up every Monday so she can visit her three grandchildren.
Beresford said she has two sons as well, one in Seattle and another in Denver.
“All my kids are successful; they’ve got degrees and successful jobs,” she said.
Beresford has $400 left to pay on her camper, which she plans to pay this week.
“Everything works in it except the air conditioner. It needs Freon,” she said.
Lim said he’s been cleaning up his Naches park since buying it nine months ago, and plans to expand it to better serve the community. His property includes about 15 acres that remain undeveloped. He wants to run the park for a while, make small improvements such as painting the office and storage buildings, before seeking required permits to add more RV spaces.
“Most of the people who live in a trailer have some kind of financial difficulty, so why can’t someone like me help them out?” he said. “I’m not trying to make a lot of money out of this trailer park; my goal is how can I make this a better community?”
Lim said he’d rent space to anyone willing to follow park rules, which include living safe, clean and respecting other tenants and the park overall.
“I don’t care what kind of trailer they have, as long as they can live safely and comfortable,” he said.
Pam Read, 59, lives in a 1986 Ford Econoline Camper at Lim’s park, where she pays $350 a month for the space. Once homeless herself, she can relate to Beresford,
“I was there eight years ago,” she said. “I’ve lived behind dumpsters. I know what it’s like.”
Knocking on the side of her camper, she said, “This is one step up from living on the streets. It’s not far from living on the streets, but it’s better.”
Meanwhile, organizers of Camp Hope are in discussions with the city about extending electrical, water and sewer services to an area east of the camp that could serve as RV parking for the homeless.
But concerns about public safety and keeping such an RV park clear of drugs and prostitution are thwarting plans, said camp director Michael Kay.
He believes proper screening of those who would stay there coupled with security could eliminate those concerns. Although some pose a threat, most are simply in need of a hand.
Several people at the camp are in programs helping them recover from alcohol and drug use.
“We can figure out how to make that work,” he said. “We want to make sure that the people we do have who are in recovery — we don’t want to set back their recovery.”