Part 5 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 good thing about living in a caravan park is that you can meet really good people, but not always. I have made some great friends here and we really look after each other. A lot of the kids come to talk to me when they are bored or hungry and that is nice, but I have my own problems and sometimes I can’t be there for them.
Jeff (aged 36) shares custody with his three-year-old daughter Samantha. 
Caravan parks are communities with clearly defined physical boundaries (i.e. the park community includes all the residents living within the caravan park). While there are many challenges for people living in caravan parks, residents often appreciate the friendships they make, or the sense of community they find, in caravan parks. Residents support each other in a variety of ways including lending money or food, providing information about available services and resources, looking out for each other’s children, sharing transport and providing emotional support.
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. They are good people. The atmosphere here is pretty good and the people are quite friendly.
Services can explore ways of promoting a sense of community and build on the informal social networks that exist in caravan parks. At times the sense of community can be challenging for staff – particularly when the main ways in which informal community building occurs is through alcohol or illegal activities – and services may need to explore alternative forms of community building.
Implications for practice include the following:
Staff will identify and support gatekeepers in the park community
Often there are residents in the park who act as gatekeepers who may assist workers build relationships with other residents, meet new residents or hear about residents needing extra support. These residents can play an important role in building a park community, although care needs to be taken that they do not exclude or control other residents. By supporting gatekeepers, staff can encourage them to be inclusive and help them develop skills that contribute to building a sense of community on a park.
It was during this time that I met Sally who I had previously known to be the park’s resident drug dealer/prostitute. Sally had no children and therefore did not fit within the family support project’s target group. However, Sally’s high ranking within the caravan park’s hierarchy soon became apparent and she turned into a wonderful referral source to both myself and the playgroup. I had many discussions with Sally around the boot of my car with Sally telling me how she had told new residents with children to “go and see the Save the Children ladies and they will sort you out”. It turns out; Sally had been doing this even prior to my formally meeting her. Once Sally was seen by other residents to engage with me, my social standing and visibility within the park increased. 
Staff will help residents build a safe environment, particularly for children
Safety is a significant concern in some caravan parks. Services can play an important role in assisting residents explore ways of making their park safer. Helping build social networks and strengthening the park’s sense of community can increase both people’s sense of security and actual security. Park life can be particularly difficult for families with young children and there can be numerous risks for children living in parks: frequent changeover of residents; difficulties supervising children when they are outside; the presence of residents with histories of drug and alcohol abuse, violence and child abuse; the lack of security; and the communal nature of some aspects of park life. Due to the vulnerability of children and their lack of power, it is particularly important to build a safe environment for children.
Kids permanently living in the caravan park learn that some things are best kept secret. Fear is instilled at a very young age about the consequences of transparency. Group is a great opportunity to do some basic protective behaviour work. Problems can be worked through in a safe environment. Kids have learnt they can let their guard down a little with adults that will support them in the most respectful and understanding way. 
Ways that park communities can increase safety for children include residents keeping a friendly eye on the children living on the park, providing safe places for children to play, decreasing social isolation and developing informal supportive networks between families.
A couple were having a very volatile argument involving some pushing and shoving. Their four-year-old daughter was quite scared but was able to come over to our playgroup and be with other adults and children. If they had been living in a flat or unit, she probably would not have had anywhere to else to go where she could feel safer and talk about what was happening.
Staff will help build inclusive park communities
At times park politics can mean that some residents are excluded. For example, there can be a social divide between people owning their own manufactured homes and people renting caravans on the same park, or there can be fights or disagreements between residents and some residents might not want to participate in groups if other residents will be involved. Staff can help promote community building activities that help break down some of the barriers (e.g. park newsletters, social activities), not becoming involved in park politics, avoiding excluding residents from groups except as a last resort (e.g. for violence), or challenging behaviour that is discriminatory or excludes others.
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
- 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
- Marshall, C., The caravan experience: REAL Stories. 2005, Brisbane: Onsite, Queensland Shelter.
- Daunt, M., Engaging with family members who are suspicious of services, in Supporting residents of caravan parks: Principles of promising practice, G. Stuart, Editor. 2007, Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle: Newcastle.
- Verrall, C., Working with primary school-age children in caravan parks, in Supporting residents of caravan parks: Principles of promising practice, G. Stuart, Editor. 2007, Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle: Newcastle.