LA County RV park becomes alternative housing for some

RiversEnd

Before Los Angeles’ streets became overwhelmed with homeless people living in tents, RV parks were filled with people who had no where else to go, and no money to pay to move their RVs. I found one place called River’s End deep in the canyons of the Santa Clarita Valley, where people lived in RVs full time.  Such campgrounds are seldom inspected, and they can provide a place for people to save some money. Here’s their story, from the Daily News,  May 2, 2004.

Diane Brandon’s home sits on four wheels, parked on an invisible line drawn in the sand.

Her neighbors’ homes all sit on wheels,too, their lives teetering between homelessness and homeownership.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Brandon, 54, sat at her kitchenette, inside what she calls her  “8-by-35 box”  and outlined her life.

“There are a lot of ‘I used to be’ stories around here,” Brandon said.  “But this is my life now. This is what I can afford.”

Brandon was born in Modesto, where her childhood was filled with campfires and spelling bees. She used to work on an egg farm. She used to be a highly paid secretary. She used to be married.

The road stopped months ago for Brandon and her neighbors, at a recreation vehicle park, with a name that defines their limits – River’s End. Spread out where the Santa Clara River bends just off Soledad Canyon Road, River’s End hides in the foothills of sloping canyons. Some of the city’s most expensive housing developments look down at the park, where RVs from another era sag with worn-under sun and dust.  

River’s End is one of several privately owned RV parks in Los Angeles County, and at $350 a month, one of the cheapest places to rent out a space -and one of the few where restrictions on year-round living are not imposed.

“Without a place like this most of us would be homeless,” said Brandon. “We need a place like this.”

RiversEnd2

Opened in the 1940s, River’s End is owned by the Polish Center of Los Angeles, which is an active owner that hosts an annual picnic each May. Its manager, Ray Kline, said running the park is the hardest thing he’s had to do.

“I have an attorney and I have to do evictions because sometimes, you get lowlife people – alcoholics and drug addicts,” said Kline, a thin 58- year-old man who had worked in the plating business in Burbank for 40 years before a motorcycle accident punctured his lungs and left him almost paralyzed.

“It’s better they end up at treatment centers. I’m just tough on them even though it gives me a mental anguish, but I’ll find a way to do it. It’s just I feel so sorry for the kids who live here.”

He also adheres strictly to a Los Angeles County statute that says RV users must vacate a park after 90 days, and cannot come back until three days later. Each private park can set certain standards, such as denying entry to those with RVs 10 or more years old. But unlike some parks’ managers, Kline will let residents stay past the usual nine-month deadline and he doesn’t discriminate against aging RVs. For some of his tenants, that way of life – leaving for 72 hours, then coming back – turns into a years-long ritual.

“We’re a little more lenient because we’re the last link on the chain for these people,” he said.  “If they shut us down, they’re going to have to open a lot of homeless shelters in Santa Clarita, and then the state is going to have to pay for them, and then taxes will have to be raised.”

The world of RV travel outside of River’s End shows an industry that is booming with couples with expendable income. What used to be an industry that seemed to attract only retired couples turned road warriors is now one that caters to upscale tastes. Some parks offer churches, beauty salons and computer modem hookups to serve telecommuters and families.

According to the Recreation Vehicle Association, ownership of RVs has reached record levels. Nearly one in 12 American households that own vehicles also owns an RV, a 38 percent gain from 1980 to 2001, the last year for which data was available. And more RVs are now owned by those ages 35 to 54 who can afford state-of-the-art brands that include granite counters and big-screen televisions.And the RV park industry also boasts high occupancy rates. The Travel Parks Association, a group that represents more than 350 privately owned parks in California, Oregon and Washington, reports that occupancy rates have remained steady for the last three years, averaging about 62 percent filled, said the group’s spokeswoman, Verna Wiseman.`

“After 9-11, we kind of saw an increase and it’s really holding,” she said. But along with those statistics, the group and other local parks are also seeing more people live full time inside their RVs, a result of high housing costs.  “In some cases, a park becomes a low-income housing alternative,” Wiseman said.

At Castaic RV Park, manager Ray Graeber said he believed it was a nationwide issue for several reasons. Some people simply have to live where there’s work. His 103-space park is always full of residents who are more likely to be workers than sightseers.

“It’s a nationwide situation, especially in urban areas where there are a lot of construction workers, or movie industry people who may go from job to job six months to a year,” Graeber said.  “The RV becomes their home. There’s just more people wanting to live in metropolitan areas.”

At Valencia’s Travel Village, those who stay longer are usually there for other reasons, said staff member Tina Rhodes.

“A lot of people who come in here come for medical reasons because the medical centers are close by,” she said. “There are also those who are waiting for their new houses to be built and can’t move in until it’s completed.”

Rhodes said the park’s occupancy rates have stayed high, at about 90 percent of the 400 spaces available filled.For those at River’s End, life in an RV park compared to homelessness is both a blessing and a curse. A small glass of potable tap water, which is drawn from a well, can stink up a motor home like rotten eggs for several minutes. The spaces are tight, too. Sometimes, neighbors can  “hear each other washing dishes,” Brandon said.

And sometimes, it can just be scary, said resident Ray Vestman, a 60- year-old part-time security guard who visits Brandon but usually stays to himself.Once married with children, Vestman – not his real name – said he can’t wait until he retires so he can move.

“I don’t trust a lot of people,” he said in a soft voice while taking a walk down the gravely path around the park.  “I was married once and she just left me.” Brandon, who has lived in the park for a year, said sometimes people who see her in downtown Santa Clarita are surprised that a  “robust woman of pioneer stock who could kill a snake with her bare hands” lives in an RV park. Just because you live in a park doesn’t mean you have to be trashy,” she said she tells them.

“That’s a misconception, but it’s true not everyone is that nice who lives here.”

Brandon too didn’t expect it, she said. But sometimes when the heart is broken, or when the body shuts down, life becomes a bumpy ride.  In Brandon’s case, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She swallows 14 different pills a day, paid for with a $900 a month government check that also pays for rent. Like some others, she gets food from a pantry once a week.

Across the farthest end of the park, another longtime resident with a long beard and hair named R.T. sits in the afternoon sun on a white plastic lawn chair outside of his old mobile home and watches his two children play with others. A woman down a few trailers is washing dust off her car while she watches over a barbecue where dinner is cooking.

The children have found a baby gecko and an older boy is scaring the younger ones away with it. It slips and another boy tries to stop the lizard by putting his toe on it, but accidentally lops off its tail. The tail continues to wiggle and the children let out high shrieks of both fascination and horror.

Like Brandon’s, R.T.’s body betrayed him. On his wrist, he wears a medical alert bracelet. A single father, R.T., 44, is waiting for a heart transplant, since his went bad seven years ago. Child Protective Services has come around a few times too, telling R.T. that River’s End is no place to raise two children, a boy and a girl, ages 10 and 8. But R.T. can’t imagine what is better: his children attend Sulphur Springs Elementary School and are enrolled in classes for the gifted. His children have learned about nature, how to give a rattlesnake its space, how to distinguish a frog’s croak. They play outdoors until dinnertime. They can look up at the night sky and see bright stars twinkle.R.T. tells them not to be ashamed of where they live.

“If someone always keeps telling them this isn’t the way to live, then they’ll buy into that,” he said. “I tell them, this isn’t the right way to live, but this isn’t the wrong way to live. It’s just a different way to live.”

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