Originally posted on NRPA’s Open Space blog on January 22, 2014.
The January cover story about homelessness in parks, “Out of the Shadows,” is one I’ve wanted to write for a long time. At both the 2012 and 2013 NRPA Congresses, I attended education sessions on homelessness presented by Sara Lamnin, and in each, I hoped to gather some stories from other attendees of successful programs that park agencies have implemented to work with the homeless people living in their parks.
At the beginning of each session, the presenter asked attendees what they wanted to get out of their time, and many people talked in soft, politically correct terms about compassionate solutions and providing resources for assistance. One woman was more blunt. “I just want them out,” she said. “I want to know what legal backing I have for removing people who illegally set up camp in parks we spend a lot of time developing and maintaining.” By the general murmurs around the room, I gathered that many other people there felt the same but hadn’t been bold enough to speak as openly.
It’s uncomfortable to talk about, but homeless people often do cause a major problem for parks and the people who staff them. Gina Mullins-Cohen, NRPA’s vice president of marketing, communications and publishing, told me about a park near her former California home that has been completely overtaken by homeless people and turned into an unintended campground where others are afraid to go. This same situation occurs at parks across the country, and because homelessness is an incredibly complex social issue with innumerable factors contributing to it, it’s not easy to address on a wide scale.
The January article only included perspectives from a handful of agencies that have developed programs to address problems with homelessness in their parks, but there’s a lot more to be said on this topic, and I hope this article will be taken as the start of a broader conversation we need to have on this issue. If you have something to share about homelessness in your community and any responses your agency has made, please do so in the comments section below, and we may publish it in the magazine. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.