A paper I presented in 2008.
In this presentation I want to compare two pictures of caravan parks and their residents (especially families). One picture is created by focusing on the deficits or problems we can find in caravan parks. The other is created by focusing on the assets or strengths of caravan parks. The Caravan Project has found that we can achieve more when we build on the strengths of caravan parks, and so I will conclude the paper by suggesting some principles of practice that grew from this approach.
Caravan parks play an important role in the Australian housing sector. In general, people who live permanently in caravan parks fall into one of three groups, those who:
- choose to live in a park as a lifestyle choice (particularly older residents in manufactured homes)
- are itinerant or seasonal workers choosing to live long term or permanently in parks (particularly in rural caravan parks)
- have few, or no, other options: they may have been blacklisted from other housing, may not be able to afford the bond and rent in advance, may not have a strong rental history or they may be homeless (Wensing, Holloway, & Wood, 2003).
People who live in caravan parks as a last resort are a significant and often vulnerable group in the community and it’s these people that I am particularly interested in.
When we consider some of the challenges faced by residents a survey conducted by the Caravan Project (Stuart, 2005) of 142 residents in eight Lower Hunter caravan parks found that:
- 68% completed no more than year 10 (57% in the Hunter)
- 85% relied on pensions or benefits from Centrelink
- 30% experienced mental health problems
- 48% had no car in their household (11% in the Hunter)
- 40% had experienced homelessness
- 21% of the families with children had had contact with the Department of Community Services in the past 12 months. (Stuart, 2005).
The survey also identified that residents were much more transient than the general population (see figure 1). Fifty two percent of the residents had been living at the same address for less than one year earlier compared to 20% of the Hunter population in the 2006 Census and only 15% were living at the same address as five years ago compared to 53% in the Census.
Interestingly the survey found that most participants said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their current living arrangements and only 23% were not satisfied (see table 1). It should be noted that 13% of the residents were satisfied because a caravan was better than the available alternatives. As you can see, people who lived with children were generally less satisfied than those who did not live with children.
Table 1: Level of satisfaction (Source: Stuart, 2007)
There are numerous other research reports that have highlighted the challenges of living in caravan parks. I want to discuss two briefly. Hunt and Wegenar (2005) interviewed ten families living in Melbourne caravan parks as crisis housing. All of the families had moved in the past 12 months, with eight of them moving between three and six times and nobody in the families was employed full time, although three of the 14 adults had casual or part-time work.
The report found that:
- caravan park accommodation can be expensive;
- where it is not expensive, residential park accommodation is sub-standard;
- conditions are cramped and put family relationships under further pressure in a time of crisis;
- placing families in residential parks runs the risk of putting them in an environment that is unsafe and/or unsuitable for children;
- children’s play and development opportunities are limited and may hinder development;
- parks are often on highways that are dangerous for pedestrians and are located away from services that families are likely to access (p. 2).
In a recent report Marks (2008) identified many of the challenges facing residents of caravan parks. Whilst acknowledging “the sense of community that exists in many parks” (p. 48) the focus of the report was largely on the problems associated with caravan parks. The titles of the case studies in chapter 4 provide an indication of how caravans were portrayed:
- “Where else can we go?” (p. 37).
- “The feeling of community has vanished” (p. 41).
- “These sort of people” (p. 44).
- “People look out for one another” (p. 45).
- “A hopeless situation?” (p. 48).
- “People feel they’ve been forgotten” (p. 53).
Understandabley, Hunt and Wegenar (2005) reported residents felt stigmatised. As one resident commented, “I’m not trailer trash, that’s what they call you if you live in a trailer, you’re trailer trash…. We don’t want to be labelled” (p. 25).
I’m not suggesting that this research is wrong but I do believe it is only part of the picture. There is a danger that when researchers and service providers focus on the negative aspects of park life they can contribute to further stigmatisation and a reliance on professionals to help fix the problems.
The Caravan Project adopts a strength based approach and as such we try to recognise the strengths of caravan parks and to build on these strengths. Our research, whilst recognising challenges and problems in caravan park communities, focuses on how we can build on the strengths of park communities.
Stories of success was a series of interviews we conducted with 11 residents from six different caravan parks who had moved in to a park as a last resort. They had moved into the park for a variety of reasons including relationship breakdown, being evicted or moving to be close to family. These interviews identified some of the challenges of park life, but more importantly highlighted some of the strengths of caravan parks and ways in which residents make the most of their situation.
The most common strength of caravan parks identified was the sense of community residents experienced.
The sense of community had two main aspects: the first was friendship.
I really wanted a house, but I love living here, everyone is so friendly, you can sit on your veranda and everyone says hello when they walk past. (Kathy, who moved into the park with her family 20 years ago).
The second aspect of a sense of community was the support they received from other residents.
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 lend or 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. You know, it’s a good friendly environment here. You do have idiots (Alison, a 23 year old living in the park with her partner and six year old daughter).
Some residents appreciated the safety they experienced on the park.
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 (Gay, who had lived in many park with her family).
Women who have escaped domestic violence sometimes report feeling much safer in a caravan park because they know that there are other people around and that it is harder for their ex-partner to get them. One women reported that she felt quite trapped in an apartment whereas in the caravan park she felt there were other residents to keep an eye out for her.
For some residents the setting or location was an attraction.
It is a good spot, its not like living in a brand new house but it is an excellent location, I have cattle there, I’ve got horses, quiet surroundings, across the road is a twenty four hour service station for ice creams, cigarettes, chips and coke which is pretty good. (Luke, a 37 year old single male).
I’m central to my family and my doctors and if I want to go anywhere it’s not far to go. (Wendy, an older woman who’s family had grown up).
In some of the caravan parks, the residents spoke about the difference a good park manager made and how they appreciated the support of their park manager.
Sometimes I have an appointment and this is where [the park manager] helps me out. I always give her my appointment dates now and she comes over or gets [another resident] to come over to say, ”don’t forget you have to go”… Things like that I really appreciate (Jackson, a separated father).
When asked how they made the most of having to live in a caravan park, many of the responses related to relationships and community life. The interviews demonstrated that residents need to balance the ability to “mind your business” with “getting to know” other residents.
As I mentioned, residents appreciated the friendships they formed in the park and believed that it was important to meet other people in the park.
I live here so I have to make friends don’t I. You pick your friends, I have about 7 friends on the park, good friends someone you can tell something to and they don’t repeat it. They can tell me anything, ‘cause they know I will keep my mouth closed (Kathy).
As some of the residents highlighted, there are disadvantages to the closeness of park life.
They can hear everything. I have a boyfriend and you know I brought him home once and the lady next door was telling me everything that we had done and “I could hear this and I could hear that”, and you have that aspect of it as well. As you know caravan parks have no sound barriers so that can be a disadvantage (Gay).
Residents thus need to be able to maintain their sense of privacy and personal boundaries.
I think it’s about being respectful of my neighbours you know I’m not too intrusive I don’t live in people’s pockets and I don’t drink with them. Cause if you start doing that you know you will get into the caravan park gossip line. I’m not judging them or putting them down but that can happen because when I lived at [another park] I did get involved. I was going through a bad time and I did get involved you know with drinking with my neighbours and I noticed maybe that it wasn’t such a good thing because we were all so close together. You can do it with maybe a friend that you can trust and know really well you know, but otherwise it is not good to get too involved. Especially, because people may have drinking problems and if you start socialising too much with them you will get yourself into hot water (Gay).
Two of the residents, both of whom took part in social activities or had friends in the park, said it was best to keep to themselves and not to become involved in community life.
Oh I just pretty much stick to myself, I’m a bit of a loner in that sense…. The thing is I get my money’s worth here because I spend 99% of the time in my van nearly. Virtually the only time I go out is to walk to the library or just go for a walk or go and use to toilet or have a shower (Jackson).
A few of the residents also spoke about the danger of park politics and gossip, and one suggested that it was important to be able stand up for yourself.
Don’t get involved in park politics, when they start saying things you just go back and close your door (Jackson).
If you have something to tell someone it’s better to tell them straight to their face. If you get blamed you have to stand up for yourself, that happened to me a couple of times and I went to that person and stood up for myself, and sorted it out and they found it wasn’t me. You know that hurts. When people say you have done something and you haven’t (Kathy)
More broadly, some residents spoke about the importance of being able to adapt to living in a caravan park.
I try and make it feel more like a home for them [my children], giving them a lounge room and a bedroom (Jenny, a 23 year old women living in the park with her partner and three children and was expecting a fourth child).
Closely related to being able to adapt was having a positive attitude.
Oh look, you have to live here so you have to come to some sort of conclusions and sort of half like it anyway (Alison).
One of the first things I did when I came here – I had a lot of negative memories that made me feel negative… I started walking out of the caravan, looking at the sunrise early in the morning… and I would do this I’d go beautiful property (short pause), beautiful view (short pause), homestead in the distance (short pause), trees (short pause), sunshine, beautiful sunshine (pause), peaceful breeze blowing through the trees, beautiful trees, beautiful shade, beautiful grass. I would say right this is a positive; this is a level of success. This is what I worked for through prison (Luke).
Although the interviews confirmed that life in caravan parks can be very difficult for families with children, they also demonstrated that the experience can be quite different for different families and that there were some benefits of park life in relation to children.
We are hoping to move out (of the caravan park) around July, August because the baby is going to be born…. It is no place for a new born…. There is no room for the baby; we already have three in that room there and that’s already one too many It is better for Breanna better for older kids, playmates to hang out with. Not so good for little ones. Older ones can make friends. Breanna loves it, heaps of friends, heaps or room to ride her bike around (Jenny).
I’ll probably move out of here just before Mason is ready to go to school. I’m quite happy here at the moment…. When he gets to that age, when he is more active and wants to run around everywhere. When he gets to school I want him to have his own backyard…. Once he’s at school I really want him to have his own proper bedroom… his own backyard, his own swings. Just basic stuff like that for him (Julie, a 29 year old women living in the park with her partner and two year old son).
The sense of community meant that there was always somebody to watch out for children and to help them out.
Someone is 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 (Alison).
The safety of children was a particular concern. One of the women discussed an incident where a resident from her park pleaded guilty to sexual intercourse with children under 10, indecent assault and possession of child pornography (Daily Telegraph 24 May 2007). It had a huge impact on the park and it made her worried to have her grandchildren around. As she commented:
You have to suss people out very carefully; they have to earn their trust. Unfortunately caravan parks are places where there are drifters people will lurk and congregate (Gay).
When we start identifying and recognising the strengths of park communities it become easier to identify strategies for supporting residents. I want to conclude by discussing some principles of practice for supporting marginalised residents of caravan parks that grew from this approach. In many ways they are nothing new, you will probably have heard similar ones all before, but I still think they are significant.
- Services will make building strong relationships with residents a high priority
- Services will be flexible and creative
- Services will work with park management
- Services will build on the strengths of park communities
- Services will go to caravan parks
- Services will build strong partnerships and networks
- Services will advocate on behalf of residents
- Services will have well supported, skilled staff
- Services will pay particular attention to the needs of children
For more details about the principles see Stuart (2007).
If you like this post, you might also like:
- Supporting residents of caravan parks
- Playgroups as a foundation for working with hard to reach families
- “I try and make it feel more like a home” – families living in caravan parks
- Building relationship between caravan park (trailer park) residents and school
- Families with children living in caravan parks
- It beats living in a tent (a survey of caravan park residents in 2005)
Hunt, J., & Wegener, J. (2005). “Let’s find another place” The experiences of homeless families using caravan parks as crisis housing. Melbourne: HomeGround Services.
Marks, A. (2008). Residents at risk: Stories of ‘last resort’ caravan park residency in NSW. Sydney: St Vincent de Paul Society NSW.
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. Newcastle: Family Action Centre.
Wensing, E., Holloway, D., & Wood, M. (2003). On the Margins? Housing risk among caravan park residents. Sydney: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.
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 Available, from https://sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/families-living-in-caravan-parks/