Urban Camping

Car Camping Causes Commotion

by Bridget Reilly

The Centennial Car Camp for the homeless, where I lived for a total of about 7 months in two different years, was formed partially in recognition of the fact that many “homeless” people live in camping vehicles or tents and can’t meet all the requirements to be admitted into a shelter. It ran for parts of three consecutive years: 1993, 1994 and 1995. It was reluctantly funded each time by a combination of four different governments: the cities of Eugene and Springfield, Lane County and the State of Oregon.

The initial start-up costs were high but the lion’s share of this money was used to pay a round-the-clock staff of “coordinators” because these governments insisted that the campers would need 24-hour supervision. The camp consisted basically of a parking lot; each space occupied by a vehicle or tent with a few other amenities like a toilet and a sink.

It was a very welcome innovation for its time, providing relief from legal persecution for hundreds of homeless campers including babies and school children-a safe haven where we could rest while we were supposedly trying to “get our lives together.’

But in retrospect, it’s also not hard to see its many shortcomings. As has been the case with all the partial “relaxations” of the camping ban, it meant exchanging one type of hassle or inconvenience for another.

For one thing, behind the formation of such a camp is the assumption that none of us would mind being crammed like sardines into a noisy ghetto filled with people of our “kind”, segregated from the rest of society and lorded over by a staff of glorified baby sitters.

For another, the rules of this camp, as in any type of emergency shelter arrangement, only addresses the lowest common denominator of the homeless. We were all assumed to behave as unruly drunks and violent antisocial idiots who had to be coerced into acting civilized. We were also assumed to be too stupid to have any hand in the making of the rules we were expected to follow.

Of necessity there is a certain kind of camaraderie that develops in these ghetto-like situations. Many people described the camp as a “family”, a “community” and such. But there was also a tension due to the fact that we had no democratic say in the way the camp was run. There was a large discrepancy between our perception of ourselves as independent campers-dwellers and the government’s perception of us as shelter inmates.

All in all, I think it was just as well that the centennial model was not able to continue, as those four governments were not willing to continue paying such high costs. As I said, most of the money was wasted on the salary of those babysitters whose presence was not even needed by most of us. So that experiment was scrapped after three years and it was back to the drawing board.

A few months after the closing of the second car camp, I was dumped by my three-year partner and left no recourse but to become an “illegal camper” on the streets in a disabled rig I could neither drive nor repair. Then for almost two years I was able to take refuge in a private driveway; also in violation of a state zoning law that is rarely enforced. Then it was back to the streets again. I did eventually get a ticket for the “crime” of willfully and maliciously occupying my own camper on “public property”.

This was in September 1997, at the same time that I was getting ready to go to Seattle for the NASNA (North American Street Newspaper Association) conference. I had already secured permission to part my camper in a church parking lot while I was gone to ensure that it wouldn’t be ticketed and towed. The pastor originally said I could park it and camp there for a couple of weeks.

After I got back from Seattle, I had to go about searching for a lawyer to fight my camping citation. I was also still trying to figure out how to get my truck running (it needed a new alternator and battery, among other things). My “two-week” stay at the church got stretched out to six weeks while this was going on. The pastor was getting quite antsy for me to leave as there were NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) business owners in the neighborhood who were complaining about the length of time I’d been there, (as if that was a good reason to complain). After a series of friendly warning hints that it was time to go, he finally took the gloves off and got ugly, saying that I would have to get out in three days or be towed. A fine example of Christianity in action, huh?

I managed to find someone with a tow chain who could pull my truck out of there and move it to a new temporary location. At this place lived a mechanic who directed me to a store where I could get a cheap alternator; then he installed it free of charge. So then my truck was, more or less, mobile again. Also, while I was in the church parking lot, The Homeless Action Coalition was mounting an intensive “Campaign for Legal Places to Sleep”, pressuring the city to provide some hassle-free place for the homeless by such and such a date (though they kept extending the date to an alternative time) or else they would commence civil disobedience actions.

This did produce some results in November, in the form of a slight amendment to the camping ban. Now we could camp in certain designated industrial zones-but only for 24 hours at a time. We were still required to move every day, which meant that a lot of us were no better off than before.

Well, I was going to say a whole lot more, but I see that this story, brief and incomplete synopsis though it be, is already getting to be quite a bundle. So I guess I’ll close here and take up the next chapter of the saga another time. If anyone has questions about what I’ve written, feel free to write in care of the Grapevine-I know I have left out a lot of information. That will give me a hint as to what to write next.

Editor’s Note: Bridget Reilly is a regular contributor to the “Homeless Grapevine”. Previously she published the “Houseless Journal” in Eugene, Oregon. She can be reached in care of the “Homeless Grapevine”.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Issue 35, June 1999, Cleveland, Ohio