Taboo Topic: Homeless in the Park


by Danielle Taylor | Posted 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 Annual Conference, 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.


Danielle Taylor is senior editor of NRPA’s Parks & Recreation Magazine and author of the magazine’s January cover story on homelessness in parks, “Out of the Shadows.” 

Rising poverty, poor health, mental illness, addictions and poor spiritual health are certainly all contributing to the homeless problem and challenging us. The “us” includes park agencies, human service organizations, faith communities, law enforcement, public agencies, businesses and more. On the local level in Tulsa, OK, I recently attended a meeting of social service agencies trying to address this problem. It was good to see about 10 different agencies present who are interested in the homeless situation. Our agency does not have park rangers, and our maintenance staff have been frustrated by the homeless for a long time. Homeless people always have a lot more time on their hands to build camps than we have time to remove them. God loves them too, but we have to balance our compassion with the complaints we get from the public, or from the Mayor’s Action Center, etc. Women joggers in particular are understandably apprehensive about stumbling across homeless guys sleeping/camping near the trail or hanging around restrooms. In my opinion, it will take a concentrated intervention effort over the long haul to make an impact. Even with efforts from the police department, and the social service agencies, we have had only marginal success in moving homeless folks. Does anyone have successful methods to address this dilemma? by Matt Meyer on 01/31/2014

What I find interesting is that some people actually prefer to be homeless. There are many studies on it. They like the thrill, know no other way and are afraid of change, enjoy the community of homeless people, etc. If that's the case, many programs to 'get them back on their feet' are really of no interest to them. I like the idea of utilizing them as park hands though. Creative way to build social capital for the homeless. by Kim on 02/03/2014


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