WOODLAND — Valerie Guerra, 34, lives in an RV park, but she considers herself and her family to be homeless. Lewis River RV Park, located next to the river and a golf course, operates more like a campground. It’s an easier entry point for low-income families with older RVs that may not be allowed in costlier RV parks.
Guerra said there have been issues at the park around clean water, the septic system and electricity, and the family buys all of its drinking water. (Carole Harrison, deputy director of Cowlitz County Health & Human Services Departments, said there are no open investigations or complaints related to Lewis River RV Park.)
“It’s been really expensive paying for water,” Guerra said.
But, the RV is a step up from when the family lived in a tent.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says several factors weigh on whether someone in an RV should be considered homeless: The RV is in disrepair, the occupants don’t have access to sewer, water or electricity, and the RV is parked in an unusual spot or a place where it’s not allowed.
Kate Budd, executive director of Vancouver-based Council for the Homeless, explained it another way. A person with an RV is considered homeless if they don’t have amenities that make it a suitable place for habitation, such as running water or access to a working toilet. She said her agency’s Housing Hotline is contacted every day by people living out of their vehicles.
Nineteen percent of Clark County’s homeless population sleeps in a vehicle — a car or an RV. That’s according to the latest homeless census conducted in January, which found a growing number of people are unsheltered.
Council for the Homeless helps connect households to community resources and services. That could include helping pay the deposit to get a household into an RV park that meets their basic needs, a more stable situation.
Outreach workers with homeless service provider Share have limited engagement with people living in RVs. In the past six months, the team has worked with just a handful.
“Most frequently when we make contact with people living in RVs, it’s due to them directly reaching out, or through a community inquiry we’ve received,” Jill Daleiden, who supervises the outreach team, said in an email.
SafePark allows people living in their vehicles to park overnight in designated church parking lots. It used to allow RVs until two cases where people abandoned their RVs, leaving the nonprofit to pay to have them towed and crushed, incurring a hefty cost. David Bilby, who heads the organization overseeing the program, Go Connect, said a lot of people who are living in RVs call him to inquire about the program.
“I wish that we were able to allow RVs in,” he said.
Most RV parks that charge a monthly rate to rent a pad require RVs to be newer, perhaps built in the last decade. Bilby said he refers people to more affordable, less strict RV parks located outside of Clark County in Woodland and Stevenson.
Sometimes, it takes out-of-the-box thinking and creative solutions to get out of poverty, Guerra said. Living in an RV park is making the best of a bad situation.
“It’s an alternative to more desperate measures or couch surfing,” she said. “What we’re going through isn’t unique.”
Children in the RV park are eligible for assistance through the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act, she said.
Guerra said she has been working with Love Overwhelming and Lower Columbia CAP, both based in Longview, to secure housing in Cowlitz County. The family is in the process of obtaining a Housing Choice Voucher, otherwise known as Section 8, which helps to knock down the cost of rent.
“We’re hoping to find a house. It’d be nice to have something with a yard,” she said. “Our little RV was never meant to house a family like this.”
Guerra and her husband, Leo Guerra, 35, have four children ages 4 to 12. The family was living in Ariel when Leo was injured at work and Valerie lost her job and they received a 20-day notice to vacate their rental — all within a handful of days. After motel-hopping and living in a tent, they decided to stay in an RV.
“It’s given us the financial freedom to get our affairs in order so maybe one day we can be homeowners,” Valerie Guerra said.
Although the main downside is the lack of space and amenities, it’s also brought the family closer together and helped them work through family issues.
“We don’t have all those doors you can shut,” Guerra said. “We think we need a lot of space and a lot of things to make us fulfilled and we don’t.”
Valerie Guerra now works part time in retail and Leo Guerra works at a restaurant. They hope to move into a rental in the next month or two.