Taboo Topic: Homeless in the Park

Originally posted on NRPA’s Open Space blog on January 22, 2014.

Taboo Topic: Homeless in the Park

It’s uncomfortable to talk about, but homeless people often do cause a major problem for parks and the people who staff them. Although many cities focus on hiding or removing the homeless from public view, others have taken a more compassionate approach to help people in this situation instead of focusing primarily on the image of their city.

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.

Categories: Parks | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Taboo Topic: Homeless in the Park

  1. Andrew Taylor

    Interesting blog post.  I guess I never thought about people meeting to address this ‘problem’ and having to deal with the PC nature of the topic…  Interesting!

    I’m assuming you sent this to me because I proposed the hunting permits idea.  That was a joke (although I do think it would get beggars off the streets which could be nice!)

    However, here’s my real opinion on the topic.  I think shelters that just hand out food and a place to sleep are a waste of resources.  If people want those things (food and shelter) they should work for it like everyone else.  If people want to donate their own resources (post tax) to these causes then so be it, but forcing tax payers to cover these programs doesn’t make sense to me.  

    However I understand sometimes people find themselves in bad situations and could find themselves homeless.  I would support tax payer funded programs that require people to take courses or utilize counseling that will get them ‘back on their feet.’  However, even that I think people should only get once or twice, after that you’re on your own.  Supporting a growing population of people that can’t take care of themselves just bogs the system down for everyone unnecessarily.  It’s heartless, but reality.

    I also understand that some people prefer to live that way.  That is their choice, and I respect that choice, maybe more than most.  

    That being said, regarding them invading public parks.  Someone paid for those parks.  Generally the local community paid for it either with local or federal taxes.  I think we should follow the money trail.  If these parks are being paid for with income taxes, and the homeless don’t pay these taxes (because I doubt many file taxes on what people give them) then they should not be allowed to be in the parks.  They didn’t pay for that privilege, it’s bothering those that did pay, so that’s that.  However if the money is from sale’s taxes, well, that’s a gray area.  Homeless people often do buy things, and so are contributing some to the sales taxes.  Although generally not as much as the rest of the public.

    Now, of course following this logic, you may also want to ban people on welfare that don’t pay taxes (if it’s income taxes that pay for the parks).  However I think the issue is not only who is in the parks, but how they use them.  As you mentioned in your blog entry, what bothers people most is coming across people that are basically squatting or living in the park.  That is not its intended use, and so they should be evicted accordingly.  People who may not pay taxes but at least use the park for its intended purpose (recreation, not habitation) could be allowed to use the park.



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