GUEST OPINION: Jackson’s Homeless Need Help

By on May 17, 2016

Government leaders should reconsider allowing camping in town as a temporary means to house displaced workforce.

160518GuestOpinionJACKSON HOLE, WY – On Monday, Jackson Town Council briefly took up the idea of providing some short-term relief to the problem of homelessness by designating camping areas in town. With the exception of Jim Stanford, no one else on the council was interested in even having the discussion.

I sent a proposal to the council last Friday outlining some ideas on how this could be implemented. I proposed that the town allow camping in cars, campers, or RVs at the Home Ranch Lot between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. It would be by permit only, and permits would only be available to employees of local businesses. Local businesses would have to sponsor the permits, and pay their full cost. They would not be allowed to pass the cost on to employees. The permits would range from $600 to $1,000 for the summer season. Additional permits could be issued for local residents who are deemed “At Risk.”

Mobile bathrooms and shower facilities would be provided, as would sanitation and security—all paid for through the permit fees. All current municipal ordinances regarding disturbance of the peace, public intoxication, and open containers would continue to be enforced. There would be campground rules and enforcement.

I’ll try to summarize the arguments against allowing camping as best I can; some of these were made by council members and some are from the general public.

This is not a long-term solution. Of course it isn’t, and no one has suggested it should be.

No one wants to have a tent city in Miller Park with campfires. No one has proposed that we do this. Planning staff was asked to identify all possible camping locations, and they did. Miller Park was included, as were a number of other completely undesirable locations. No one has seriously proposed allowing campfires.

It’s not the government’s job to house the employees of private businesses. No, it’s not. But government does have a responsibility to provide for the general welfare and safety of the community, and it has failed to do so by allowing unfettered growth without addressing the predictable shortage of housing. It now has a chance to provide real relief to community members who are currently homeless. And my proposal requires that private businesses that want to use the program pay its full cost.

The Home Ranch Lot belongs to parking guests of downtown Jackson. No, it absolutely does not. It belongs to every resident of the Town of Jackson. It’s ours to do with as we like. It does not belong to visitors, and it certainly doesn’t belong to downtown businesses. Requiring campers to leave each morning by 9 a.m. is more than enough of a concession to tourists.

The backseat of a car is nowhere for a family to live. It certainly isn’t. But allowing seasonal workers to camp will free up rental units that are appropriate for families.

We can’t have camping near neighborhoods. First of all, homeless people aren’t more dangerous than anyone else. They’re just people that don’t have a place to live. It could happen to you, too. Second, the Home Ranch isn’t near neighborhoods and will be policed. Third, there are homeless people living in their cars right now—outside your home and on the street. I’m not sure how providing them with showers and bathrooms is going to make anyone less safe. According to the staff report: “Police would not be as concerned, as (paying) campers tend to be more responsible.”

It’s not safe for young women. Being in a permitted downtown area with security is probably going to be a lot safer for pretty much anyone than, say, sleeping in your car down by the river. And that’s the alternative for people who would utilize this program.

It’ll look terrible. Well, yes it will. I don’t really have a rebuttal to this argument. If you think optics are more important than the reality of homeless people, I can’t argue with you. Just know that there will still be homeless people camping; they’ll just be camping in much crappier and more unsanitary conditions, and they’ll be disturbing the wildlife in Curtis Canyon. Their environmental and traffic impacts will be much higher, and their quality of life, lower; but at least you won’t have to see them.

It’ll be bad for business. Maybe so. Tourists may not like seeing how their vacation sausage is made. But they also won’t like waiting an hour before an unbathed server can get to their table because the restaurant is short-staffed. More importantly, we should remember that Jackson is a community, not a business. Businesses are an important part of this community, but at the end of the day we shouldn’t measure the quality of this town by how much money it makes. We can hide the homeless and practice denial, or we can embrace them and find solutions.

I know that camping is not a popular option. No one wants to see their pristine views of the Home Ranch Lot ruined by the working class who help make this town run. But while camping can seem like a poor option to those who have never struggled with homelessness, I can tell you this: I lost my home in 2009 but was lucky enough to have a 1993 Tioga RV to camp in. And I would have been ecstatic to find a safe place to park it that didn’t require me to drive out to Curtis Canyon every night.

No one, least of all me, is advocating for camping because they think it’s ideal. It’s appalling that we’ve made so little progress towards either slowing commercial development or providing the workforce housing it requires. But we haven’t. And it seems that the people who complain the most about these last-resort solutions we’re left with are the ones who’ve fought the hardest against real solutions that might have avoided this situation in the first place.

The reality is that there are homeless members of our community sleeping in cars and tents tonight who need our help. And we’re awfully short on better options. This is a discussion the council needs to have. PJH

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