In 2006 I helped facilitate a national forum for family and community workers supporting permanent residents of caravan parks. Through the forum we identified nine principles of promising practice for working with permanent residents of caravan parks. These principles, however, have much broader relevance. This and the following posts will discuss each of the principles in turn. Even though they were written nearly 10 years ago, my subsequent work convinces me they are still as relevant today as when they were written. The full report is available from here.
The nine principles are:
- 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 pay particular attention to the needs of children
- Services will have well-supported, skilled staff
In this post I will set the context of caravan parks.
Caravan parks: an introduction
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 .
Parks vary considerably in their resident make-up and across a number of other criteria, some of which are listed below.
- The mix of tourist and permanent residents: this can range from those that cater solely for tourists through to those that only offer accommodation to permanent residents.
- The permanent residency arrangements: for example, residents can own their own dwelling and rent the site (owner-renters) or rent both (renter-renters); stay for a few weeks or months, through to many years; and live in a three-bedroom relocatable home through to a small caravan with no annexe.
- The geographical location: there is great variation in the locations of parks although many are poorly located in terms of their accessibility to local services and facilities. Some parks are on prime real estate in terms of tourist income or re-development potential, which increases the likelihood that the park will close.
- The park standards: parks vary from very successful parks with a high standard of facilities to derelict, poorly maintained caravan parks with considerable variation in between. The poorer quality parks are more likely to cater for people who live there as a last resort.
- The perception of park residents: some residents see parks as a positive housing choice while others see them as a negative option over which they have little control.
- The park management: some parks are very well managed and there are good relations between residents and park managers or owners, while others are poorly managed and have a history of conflict .
People who live in caravan parks as a last resort are a significant and often vulnerable group in the community. In particular, there is a close relationship between marginalised residents of caravan parks and homelessness:
- Chamberlain and MacKenzie  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 
- Caravan parks play an important role in pathways in and out of homelessness .
The role of caravan parks in providing housing for people with few or no other options can present a dilemma to service providers. As Newton  argues, caravan park accommodation is seen as “both a problem and a solution by welfare services” (p. 22). While 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, particularly families with young children.
Marginalised residents of caravan parks face significant disadvantage. The Caravan Project survey , which included some people living in manufactured home villages, found that:
- 85% relied on pensions or benefits from Centrelink
- 68% had completed no more than Year 10 at school
- 30% had experienced mental health problems
- 55% of the women and 42% of the men had experienced physical/verbal abuse in the past year (80% of the women aged 18-25 reported physical abuse in the past year)
- 9% identified themselves as being from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background (but less than 1% from a non-English speaking background)
- 48% had no car in their household
- 21% of the families with children had had contact with the Department of Community Services in the past 12 months.
In a qualitative research project involving 10 families living in Melbourne caravan parks as crisis housing , HomeGround Services found that:
- The caravans were expensive and of a substandard construction
- Conditions were cramped and put pressure on family relationships, which were already in crisis
- Children were at risk in an unsuitable and unsafe environment
- Children’s play and development opportunities were limited
- Caravan parks were located away from services and support.
Caravan parks are not necessarily cheap alternatives to permanent housing, with rents ranging between $150 and $320 per week . While these rents are not cheap, it is “just much easier to become a caravan park tenant, and if your residential history is less than perfect, in some cases it’s the only option left” [9, p. 26].
A study by the Gippsland Housing and Support Services Network, involving telephone interviews with mangers of 95 of the 108 caravan parks in Gippsland , found only 25 were willing to accept housing referrals from the Office of Housing. Many managers reported that they had ceased to accept referrals or had strict selection criteria because of past experiences in which people were assisted into caravan parks without ongoing support or without the necessary intensive support. Other park owners “spoke of losing money, often thousands of dollars in damage and rent arrears” (p. 5). They also reported a range of undesirable behaviour including “drug and alcohol abuse, mental health issues, self-harm, criminal, violent or antisocial behaviour by residents or their visitors, and excessive noise” (p. 5). Interviews with 10 caravan park managers in Melbourne suggest managers have a “strong focus on maintaining order and receiving rent and practice selective gate-keeping” .
Strengths of caravan park communities
While caravan parks provide many challenges for some residents, there are also many strengths in caravan park communities. The Caravan Project survey of 142 residents  found that most participants said they were satisfied (45.8%) or very satisfied (31.7%) with their current living arrangements and only 22.5% were not satisfied. People who were not living with their children were more likely to be satisfied than those who lived with their children.
It needs to be noted that 13% of the residents were satisfied because a caravan was better than the available alternatives (“it beats living in a tent”). Most residents identified positive features of living on parks. These included having friends, the social aspects of park life, good neighbours, a sense of community, good management, a convenient location and a nice environment.
The Caravan Project has completed in-depth interviews with 10 residents (all of whom moved onto a caravan park as a last resort) about how they have made a success of park life. Preliminary findings from the research, which is not completed, identified a number of strengths in caravan parks:
- Residents reported that they appreciated the sense of community often found in caravan parks. In particular they appreciated the friendships they made and the support they received from other residents.
- The type of residents on the park made a big difference to the life of other residents. As one residents said “Here it is nice and quiet and people generally get along with each other … I’ve lived in some caravan parks where there are fights and arguments and bangs and crashes, people blaring their music at ungodly hours of the day and night.”
- Some residents reported that they had good park managers who helped improve life on the park. Managers played an important role in ensuring that there were good tenants, the park standards were adequate and problems were dealt with.
- Some parks had facilities – such as swimming pools or communal areas – that promoted a sense of community and helped improve the quality of life of residents.
- Having a good dwelling (e.g. a cabin or a caravan with an annexe) was preferable to just a caravan. In particular, having an ensuite made a big difference to life on a park.
- The location, setting and atmosphere of the parks suited some residents; for example, the park might be close to family, it might have a rural setting or just “feel good”.
The strategies residents used to make the most of their situation included:
- Building and maintaining positive relationships with other residents and the manager
- Maintaining personal boundaries, knowing when to “mind your own business” and balancing privacy with “getting on with other people”
- Being flexible and adaptable
- Maintaining a positive attitude.
This is the context for the principles identified above, but there are many other families and communities where the principles are relevant.
If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:
- 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)
- Wensing, E., D. Holloway, and M. Wood, On the Margins? Housing risk among caravan park residents. 2003, Sydney: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.
- Chamberlain, C. and D. MacKenzie, Counting the homeless, 2006. 2008, Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics. viii, 68 p.
- Stuart, G., It beats living in a tent: A survey of residents in eight Lower Hunter caravan parks. Parity, 2005. 18(5): p. 17-18.
- Giles, R., et al., Homelessness: Stories from the street. A qualitative exploration of the issues, risks and survival. 2006, Mission Australia and University of Newcastle: Newcastle.
- Newton, J., Microcosms, Managers and Permanent Residence in Caravan Parks. Parity, 2005. 18(5): p. 22.
- Stuart, G., S. Silberberg, and L. Hughes, A snapshot of residents in eight Lower Hunter caravan parks. 2005, Newcastle: Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle.
- Hunt, J. and J. Wegener, Let’s find another place: The expereinces of homeless families using caravan parks as crisis housing. Parity, 2005. 18(5): p. 19-20.
- Wright-Howie, D., Homelessness and caravan parks: Action is long overdue. Parity, 2005. 18(5): p. 16.
- Stuart, M. and K. Ellis, “I love my house! It has two wheels and a door!”. Parity, 2005. 18(5): p. 26-28.
- Gilbert, W., Screened out: Housing exclusion in Gippsland. Parity, 2005. 15(5): p. 14-16.