An article originally published in Parity in 2008.
People who live in caravan parks as a last resort are a significant and often vulnerable group in the community. Families with children, particularly young children, often struggle with life in a caravan park. Although not always the case, residents with children are more likely than other residents to be living in a caravan because they have no other choices, and are less likely to be satisfied with their living arrangements than residents without children (Stuart, 2005). Children living in caravan parks are often vulnerable to poverty, child protection issues, under performance at school, illness, poor nutrition and injury. At the same time there are strengths and resources in park communities that can be drawn upon to support children.
There is a close relationship between marginalised residents of caravan parks and homelessness: Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2003) argue that marginal residents of caravan parks are best understood as part of the tertiary homeless population and that their housing situation is similar to that of residents in boarding houses. Forty percent of the participants in a survey conducted by the Caravan Project of 142 residents in eight Lower Hunter caravan parks stated that they had experienced homelessness (Stuart, 2005) and Giles et al (2006) argue that caravan parks play an important role in pathways in and out of homelessness.
Although caravan parks play an important role in the Australian housing sector, particular for those who have few or no other options, increasingly families are excluded from caravan parks. The Caravan Project at the Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle, is currently completing an audit of the 56 caravan parks and manufactured home villages in the Hunter region. Of the 35 parks audited to date, six do not accept permanent residents and a further 19 do not accept families with children. Only 10 of the parks (28.6%) accept families with children.
Although there are exceptions, many families living in caravan parks (more so than manufactured home villages) experience multiple layers of disadvantage and find raising children in a park difficult. Particular challenges facing families with children can include:
- Having to eat, sleep and play in one room resulting in little privacy for parents or children
- Child protection issues can be exacerbated by communal living (e.g. residents with a history of violence or sexual offences, difficulties supervising children, frequent turnover of residents)
- Shared amenities that are not well maintained or child friendly
- Poor safety provisions (e.g. no fencing)
- Lack of space to play indoors, and nowhere to play in bad or very hot weather
- Poor quality, or no, play equipment
- Difficulties doing homework because of noise and lack of space
- Difficulties maintaining friends because of transience, being embarrassed to bring their friends home or other parents not allowing their children to visit the park
- Communal living increasing the risk of illness and contagious diseases
- Social and physical isolation (Stuart, 2007).
Mountain View Caravan Park (not its real name) demonstrates some of the challenges faced by park residents. Most residents, but not all, live in the caravan park because they have few, or no, other choices. The park has plenty of open space for playing and there is bushland surrounding the caravan park, which a few of the older children use for playing. Whilst it is set in a picturesque location, the park is geographically isolated being 15 km from two town centres (in opposite directions). The only shops within 10 km are petrol stations with a limited range of expensive goods. Until recently, the only public transport was the school bus and as few as a third of the residents had a registered car.
The park has no community facilities besides the toilet/laundry block and a picnic table. Although the park owner is attempting to improve the standard of the accommodation, most of the caravans are old and need repairs. There are no cabins and only a few of the vans have annexes.
There re numerous challenges for families living in Mountain View, particularly when they first moved in. As Jude, who lived in the park with her partner and two children, said, “it was pretty bad when we moved in… [and] I changed the locks”. The children often experience or witness violence: some of them come from families where there is family violence and most of them are exposed to violence in the park (e.g. a fight between two men in front of an after-school group in the park).
The park can be unsafe for children. The park is on a busy road with cars and trucks passing at high speed and there are no fences. In the last two years there have been two fires in caravans, one of which lead to a double fatality and there had been a number of allegations of child sexual assaults by other residents.
Conditions can be quite cramped. One six year old girl said she was not sleeping very well because “my uncle is staying with us, and I am sleeping at the end of mum and dad’s bed and my brother’s in his cot and my uncle has my bed.” There was also a teenage son in the van with his own bed.
At the same time the residents of Mountain View provided each other with significant informal support and some of them say the park has a strong sense of community. There are frequent examples of residents lending each other money or food, keeping an eye on each others children and sharing information. As Jude’s partner commented:
I didn’t think I would like it here, but I have actually fallen into the lifestyle.… When you run out of sugar, somebody will have it, if you run out of money – money is not an issue on this park because there is always someone that will lend you money: as long as you pay it back. Things like that you don’t have in the outside world.
Residents of caravan parks often comment on the sense of community, friendships and informal support networks they develop in caravan parks (Gall, Tucker, Sutherland, & Tito, 2007; Stuart, 2008).
I’ve made some really good friends, really good friends that I know that I can trust that are always there for me if I need a shoulder to cry on, or something to borrow or even just a lift down town to get to work if my car is broken…. If I need something moved they will help me move it, if I need something done they will do it for me.
I never feel frightened. Because people hear everything, I can go away on the weekend and come back and pretty much know that everything will be in order.
[Children are] always falling over and hurting themselves or something like that but it happens all the time. It’s the fact that there’s not one of us who doesn’t rush to the aid of another one.
The role of caravan parks in providing housing for families with few or no other options can present a dilemma to service providers. As Newton (2005) argues, caravan park accommodation is seen as “both a problem and a solution by welfare services”. Whilst caravan parks provide an important housing option, especially for those with few other choices, there are concerns about the levels of disadvantage on some parks and the difficult conditions for residents. Services working in caravan parks can face a dilemma in deciding when to advocate for improvements to a park or to help people find better accommodation, and when to focus on supporting the residents living there. At times doing both is very difficult. Caravan parks are private property and managers can exclude services providers if they feel that they are creating problems (e.g. reporting unsafe conditions) or undermining their business by helping people move off the park.
Caravan parks do have numerous strengths and some families benefit from the social connections they develop in parks. In fact some families struggle with the isolation they experience when they move from a park into “better” accommodation. It could be worth exploring possibilities for improving the standard of accommodation of caravan parks (e.g. by supporting managers to provide cabins or rigid annexes and ensuite toilets) rather than assisting residents to move into public housing or private rental.
There is a real benefit in projects like the Caravan Project and projects funded through the Intensive Supported Playgroups (e.g. Save the Children, Qld) that visits parks on a weekly basis to provide support, build community and provide an entry point to other services. There can be high levels of suspicion of services and offering activities for children allow service providers to make initial contact with residents in a non-threatening, low-key and informal setting. They allow residents to commence building a relationship with staff at their own pace whilst deciding whether or not they can be trusted or of assistance. Outreach services such as these need the time to build relationships, the flexibility to meet the changing needs of residents, and strong networks so that they can quickly refer people where required. It can also be beneficial when other services or agencies (e.g. health, Centrelink) provided outreach to caravan parks.
Although it is tempting to argue that caravan parks are unsuitable for families, we need to recognise that they play an important role in housing many people who have few or no other choice, that caravan park communities have a range of strengths that can support people who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and that marginalised caravan parks are important sites for service provision. We need to build on the strengths that exist in order to improve the quality of life for caravan park residents.
Chamberlain, C., & MacKenzie, D. (2003). Counting the homeless, 2001. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Gall, J., Tucker, J., Sutherland, P., & Tito, A. (2007). Our park our community : stories from the Narrabundah Longstay Park. Kingston, ACT: Softlaw Community Projects & the ACT Council of Social Services.
Giles, R., Stuart, G., Hamilton, J., & Stefans, P. (2006). Homelessness: Stories from the street. A qualitative exploration of the issues, risks and survival. Newcastle: Mission Australia and University of Newcastle.
Newton, J. (2005). Microcosms, Managers and Permanent Residence in Caravan Parks. Parity, 18(5), 22.
Stuart, G. (2005). In beats living in a tent: A survey of residents in eight Lower Hunter caravan parks. Parity, 18(5), 17-18.
Stuart, G. (2007). Supporting residents of caravan parks: Principles of promising practice. Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle.
Stuart, G. (2008). “I try and make it feel more like a home” – Families living in caravan parks. 10th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference.
Originally published in:
Stuart, G. (2008). Families with children living in caravan parks. Parity, 21(8), 31-32.