AP: For some, campground is home, even in winter

12/29/2012

LAWRENCE (AP) — The boats are out of the water at Clinton State Park. Restrooms are locked up for the winter, water has been turned off and, with freezing temperatures and the season's first snow blanketing the ground, the park's campgrounds are empty.

LAWRENCE (AP) — The boats are out of the water at Clinton State Park. Restrooms are locked up for the winter, water has been turned off and, with freezing temperatures and the season's first snow blanketing the ground, the park's campgrounds are empty.

Except Campground 3. A couple dozen people make their homes there, weathering the elements. Some live there permanently, in well-equipped campers. For others, the campsite is a cold, squalid last resort before homelessness.

With slabs of Styrofoam covering the vents, light streaming through the windows and a couple of tiny space heaters, Gene and Diane Wallace's recreational-vehicle home stays more or less warm enough, at least on a sunny day.

The couple lived in Lawrence before leaving their apartment to become full-time RV residents in August 2011. Gene was retired and Diane's anxiety disorder had become bad enough that she said she was unable to work.

"We wanted less stress," Diane said, laughing because of the irony of the situation they're in now.

The couple, traveling with their two cats, had visited Gene's sister in North Carolina, then headed for Michigan's upper peninsula to see Diane's hometown. They set off for Kansas next to update their vehicle's registration.

Being on a fixed income — Gene gets Social Security and makes a little money from selling things on zazzle.com; Diane makes a bit writing on squidoo.com — their budget and an RV that gets 5 to 7 miles per gallon allowed them to travel no more than 300 miles a month, Gene said.

That wasn't fast enough to outrun winter.

When the transmission went out on their 1997 Four Winds XL a couple weeks ago, they had it towed into Lawrence, then had to pay for close to a week at a motel while they waited for it to be fixed.

They weren't financially prepared for the setbacks. Gene said he had to take out a loan to cover the repairs, and they seem to slip further behind.

They don't have enough money to leave, or to winterize their RV, which, among other problems, has uninsulated water tanks. Even if they wanted to give up RV life, they don't have money to get back into an apartment.

"We've always lived on the edge," Gene said. "We always thought that we would be able to improve our income ...

"We knew we were taking a chance," he said. "We're close to homelessness."

Janet Foster's trailer home at Clinton Park, in contrast, has "all the amenities," as she puts it.

"I love it," said Foster, who's entering her fourth winter at Campground 3. "I feel like I live in a gated community. There's only one way in and one way out, we've got our own security."

Foster lives with her husband and their two dogs, Dusty and Chewy, who even have a tiny fenced-in yard to roam in. Her trailer has plywood skirting around the base to help insulate it, propane heat and running water, though in the wintertime — when campsite water hookups and all but one of the shower houses are shut down — she has to fill up tanks of water at the park dump station then drive them back to hook them up to her home.

It's not her favorite thing, she said, but it's not that big of a deal.

"The only thing that sucks about winter is you don't get to go out as much," Foster said. "But in the summertime you're hardly inside."

Foster said she lived at the lake years ago, moved to town to raise her family, then moved back for the neighborhood's peace, quiet and wildlife. She works in the park office.

Several of Foster's neighbors have lived at the park longer than she has. Many work during the day and come home to Campground 3 at night. Some also do chores at the campsite — cleaning bathrooms or mowing — in exchange for part of their camping fees.

Some less-permanent Campground 3 residents live in tents or vans. These are the types of residents Lawrence Community Shelter employees hear about.

In the past week, as the cold set in, the downtown homeless shelter has filled up at night and turned people away, shelter director Loring Henderson said. But that's not why most of the Campground 3 residents seek out spots at Clinton Park.

"People choose it because it's a little more freedom than coming to a shelter where there are rules," Henderson said. "That's the difference, I think, that drives them. They want their independence as much as possible."

Shelter case manager Brian Blevins said he's suggested that some families move to the lake. In other cases, he's "rescued" people, such as a woman and four children, living in tents, who were stranded with no way to get to town for food when the man of the family took off.

Lake living allows some families to save up money to move into an apartment, Blevins said. "I've seen a lot of really smart moves, and I've seen a lot of people just rationalize, 'This is all I can do,"' he said. "You've got both ends of the spectrum."

Blevins said there are similar neighborhoods at other state lakes. Especially in this economy, he said, the unconventional housing choice doesn't surprise him.

If authorities ever hear of children in danger — such as the couple Blevins recalled leaving the shelter to camp at the lake in sub-freezing temperatures with a newborn — they can contact the Kansas Department for Children and Families to intervene.

But adults, Blevins said, prepared for the elements or not, mentally ill or not, can make their home wherever the law allows, and for residents who pay their campsite fees that includes Clinton State Park.

"Adults ... have the freedom to go out there and freeze to death, and that bites," Blevins said. "It's very frustrating for us."

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