Part 4 of a series of posts based on nine principles for supporting permanent residents of caravan parks which are relevant to a range of other contexts. The first post introduces the context and lists the nine principles.
The Family Support Program in Brisbane has found that building and maintaining a positive working relationship with the park managers is important to providing services to the residents in the caravan park. Such a concept is more difficult than it first sounds .
Some park managers present challenges for services working with park residents. They can prevent or restrict access to parks, place restrictions on what services can do in the park or who they talk to, undermine the work done or place other obstacles in their way.
I had just visited a couple who wanted assistance with finding alternative accommodation, when the caretaker told me that the owner wanted to talk to me on the phone. The owner, who lived in a caravan on a hill overlooking the park, had seen me visiting the resident and proceeded to tell me that I wasn’t to visit them because they were trouble makers. After discussing it with the owner for a while, she agreed that I could continue to talk to the couple because she wanted them off the park anyway.
The park manager rang me the afternoon before I usually come to the park. She told me “not to come tomorrow because no one would be there”. I asked her about that and she just said no one would be there. Because of other things going on with the manager, I felt I had to do as she said. When I came to the park the next week a resident said to me “Why didn’t you come last week?” I told him how I was told not to because no one was going to be there. He said they were all there. The residents were unusually quiet after this.
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Other park managers can be quite supportive and attempt to help residents as much as possible.
The park owners were quite concerned about a resident who was experiencing a mental health crisis and wasn’t paying his rent. They rang us to see if we could help with Centrelink and mental health services. They didn’t want to evict him, but couldn’t let him stay if he got too far behind in his rent. Because the managers contacted us early enough, we were able to intervene, ensure he received the support he needed and maintain his tenancy.
Park owners and managers are quite powerful and make a big difference to park life. Besides being responsible for the variety and standard of park facilities they also determine who lives in the park community, can prevent people (even family) from coming on to the park, and the way in which they handle problems and disputes has a large impact on park life. In some parks, park managers are quite supportive of residents and help create a positive environment in the park. In other parks, managers can be controlling, abusive and threatening, and help create a sense of fear and powerlessness. Because park managers often spend a great deal of time in the park (even living on-site) residents face much greater scrutiny and control than in most other housing situations, which means that some managers take advantage of, or make life difficult for, vulnerable tenants.
On one occasion we received a complaint from a young female sole parent that the park manager had demanded sexual favours in return for the provision of much needed crisis accommodation. 
The new managers have made a difference. They are just much kinder. If you explain something like if you can’t pay all the rent this week, they say “Just fix it up next fortnight.” They don’t worry about a thing; as long as you pay the money they will do anything for you. They take you down the street if they are going down there.
Park managers can also make it difficult, even impossible, for service providers to access residents in the park. Some states have legislation that provide residents with the right to access services or protects the rights of a limited number of service providers to access a park. For example, in New South Wales a park owner or manager of a residential park must not “restrict the right of a resident of that park to purchase goods or services from a person of his or her choice” (NSW Residential Parks Act, 1998, s. 69), and “emergency and home care service personnel” must have “unimpeded vehicular access to the residential premises in the park at all times, both by day and by night” (s. 71A). This does not mean that a service has the right to conduct a playgroup on a park or to do general outreach to a park. In most cases, services wanting to work on parks, especially if they want to run groups or undertake community development, will need the permission of park management to do so.
Implications for practice include the following:
Services will treat park managers with respect as individuals
When working with very marginalised residents on sub-standard parks it can be easy to see park managers as obstacles needing to be overcome or even as “the enemy”. As with clients, however, service providers need to be able to move beyond seeing only the problems created by managers and explore ways of engaging them, attempting to obtain their support and building on their skills and abilities. Because no two parks or park managers are the same, what works on one park may not work on another and so workers need to modify their response to managers depending on the situation.
Services will promote the benefits of services to park management
If service providers can help park managers see the benefits of having their service on the park, managers are more likely to be supportive. Service providers may be able to assist residents with a range of issues which could also have a positive impact on the managers. For example, assisting a resident to address financial problems may help them pay their rent; similarly, addressing a mental health crisis could lead to a resident creating less tension in the park.
I take the opportunity to provide brief support to people in the park who are not on my “caseload” but who I have been asked if I would lend a hand by the management. I do this to maintain good will with the management .
Services will acknowledge the challenges faced by park managers and provide support where appropriate
Managing a park can be quite challenging and park managers rarely have training or experience in dealing with many of the issues faced on marginalised parks. Some managers say that although they are trying to run a business, much of their time is taken up with addressing “welfare” issues of residents. Managers report having to deal with residents damaging property, not paying rent, causing disturbances to other residents and breaking park rules. They can be called upon to help with residents experiencing a psychotic episode, drunk or stoned residents, children being abused or neglected, and residents in need of emergency relief. Some managers report dilemmas in terms of children because they feel that caravans are not appropriate accommodation for young children but they know that there can be few other options. By acknowledging some of the challenges faced by park managers, services may be able show how their work with residents can also be of significant benefit to the managers.
Service providers could also consider ways in which they can provide support directly to managers so that they are more likely to create a positive environment in the park and/or deal with problems more successfully.
Once, when I was talking with a manager about the problems she was experiencing in the park, I said “We are there for you too”. It made her rethink her attitude towards us, but also made us think about the ways in which we could support the manager without disadvantaging the residents.
It may also be helpful if service providers recognise that supporting residents can make life harder for park managers; for example, assisting a family to find alternative accommodation means a loss of income. At times, supporting a resident to stay in the park not only makes life harder for the managers but also for other park residents, such as helping a resident who is causing disturbances in the park to fight an eviction notice.
One of the things that residents said they liked about the new managers was that they kicked off “the ferals and the junkies”. Some of these people were the ones we had been supporting. It highlighted the dilemma we faced in helping people to stay in the park, even though they made life harder for other residents.
Services will put time and effort into building a working relationship with park managers
As with park residents, building a trusting relationship with park managers takes time and effort. Managers can be suspicious of service providers and need to be convinced of the benefits of allowing them access to the park. Service providers may need to be patient and persistent. Some forum participants tried to keep in regular contact with the managers of the parks they worked in, both informally (by dropping in to say hello when they were at the park) and more formally (by sending letters to managers with plans for the coming term).
I often pop into the office and ask if there are new families and now have the managers in the habit of letting me know when new families have moved into the park so I may introduce myself. 
Services will set limits to how much they will compromise in order to maintain good relations with park management
Workers need to balance maintaining positive relationships with managers and doing effective work that meets the needs of residents – not always an easy task. Although positive relationships with managers are important, except in exceptional circumstance service providers should put the needs of residents first. There can be many dilemmas in working with park managers, some of which are difficult to resolve. Meeting the needs of residents could lead to conflict with park management and ultimately being prevented from entering the park.
After 12 months work, we had finally obtained permission to commence working on a caravan park with many marginalised residents. We came in contact with a woman in the park who was suicidal, being threatened with violence from another resident in the park, and was desperately wanting to find alternative accommodation. We helped the woman find somewhere else to live. In order to observe confidentially, we did not inform the manager that the women would be leaving, and she left owing approximately $400 in back rent. Once the park manager discovered what had happen, we were once again excluded from the park (even though we offered to pay half the rent) and were unable to return for about four months.
Service providers can be faced with sub-standard and unsafe living conditions and have to decide whether or not they inform appropriate authorities. They may need to decide whether it is more important that they address a specific issue or to remain on the park to continue supporting residents. It is important that services do not compromise too much and end up supporting conditions or practices that are not in the best interests of residents.
At times it may be possible to act as a bridge between management and residents and use a relationship with management to achieve changes in the park. At other times it may be necessary to adopt a stronger advocacy position and risk conflict with management.
If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:
- 9 principles for supporting families and communities
- Principle 1: Services will make building strong relationships with residents a high priority
- Principle 2: Services will be flexible and creative
- 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
- Families with children living in caravan parks
- Perkins, S., Working with caravan park managers, in Supporting residents of caravan parks: Principles of promising practice, G. Stuart, Editor. 2007, Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle: Newcastle.
- Park and Village Service, Submissions in response to the review of the Residential Parks Act 1998 discussion paper. 2004, Park and Village Service: Sydney.