THE BUZZ: Tenement Tenting

By on June 21, 2016

Homeless shelters pop up in canyons, mountains, and creeks, prompting electeds to once again consider temporary labor camps.

Twenty-year resident Brandy Borts has moved 40 times. Here is house no. 22.

Twenty-year resident Brandy Borts has moved 40 times. Here is house no. 22.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – As the summer season hits full swing, worker shortages continue to be an issue for valley businesses. The final resort for many who have made Jackson Hole their home for the dog days is the Coleman, Kelty, and REI. Tents have sprouted in the usual places—Curtis Canyon, Shadow Mountain, Mosquito Creek—as well as on some of the more remote sections of public land.

Soft-walled housing and car camping have long been a temporary, emergency solution to Jackson’s lack of housing. The practice of pitching a pad in the woods is decades old, but the quaintness of roughing it long enough to buy into a community that is quickly soaring out of reach for many hopeful homeowners is wearing thin.

Talk of creating a temporary camping site for laborers is once again on the table, even after councilman Jim Stanford’s pitch to pop up a wikiup whistle-stop failed to gain traction more than a month ago. This time, mayor Sara Flitner leads the charge in cooperation with the Forest Service.

“We are prepared to keep pushing and looking for sites and infrastructure so things are safe and sanitary. I really applaud the town to keep at it,” Flitner said. “My focus is on more medium and long-term solutions. I’m triaging and looking out five years. Because the policy boat turns very slowly, it’s incumbent upon us to look farther out. But I’m reaching out to services groups for short-term solutions. We are looking at a lot of things.”

Flitner has been in contact with Bridger-Teton Forest supervisor Tricia O’Connor about organizing a labor camp of some kind on forest land. The proposal interests O’Connor for two reasons—cramped conditions at some perennial hotspots worry Forest Service officials. Abandoned campfires, unsanitary conditions, and petty crime are ongoing concerns. And the fact is, the B-T has its own seasonal employees who need places to lay their heads.

“Curtis Canyon is one of those areas that typically sees a lot of traffic. So far things up there have not been too bad but what we are seeing is people camping in other areas, farther out in places where you wouldn’t normally expect to see so many campers. That takes away from the experience of others,” O’Connor said. “I know it’s a tough situation, and we need to house some of our own seasonal employees as well.”

Town administrator Bob McLaurin said he’s flown over Curtis Canyon recently and says, “it’s pretty packed in there.”

Life in woods

Steve Gudbranson squatted in Curtis years ago. He remembers the time as bittersweet. He enjoyed the outdoor experience and “cowboying it,” but sleeping on the ground got old.

“There was a lot of partying. I remember a car catching on fire up there one night. It turned out to be stolen or borrowed without permission or something like that,” Gudbranson said. “We had to move our campsite every five days so basically we would just shuffle around our tents. The girls next to me would move their tent 30 feet over to my site and I would take theirs. They were my ‘swap’ sisters.”

The five-day camping limit was imposed in 1995, reduced from 16 days, after Forest Service officials noticed squatters were turning their pristine woods into de facto homeless shelters. Campers using the forest for housing typically scuttle between Curtis Canyon, Shadow Mountain, and Mosquito Creek. They have limited access to water. They defecate in the woods. They shower at the Rec Center, where the parking lot is often filled with an array of dusty Subarus.

To avoid the B-T shuffle, the savvy homeless are opting to bivouac in more secluded spots, free from the prying eyes of forest rangers and the coveting nature of their fellow tenters. That’s created a noticeable degradation in the outdoor experience many visitors and locals have come to expect from the Wyoming wilderness.

The tight housing market has forced many newbies to gain their foothold in Jackson by pounding in tent stakes and stretching out in the backseat of their car. Former mayor Mark Barron and former Housing Authority head Christine Walker both often cite their camping days as the way they initially made a life in the valley.

But the art of slumming alfresco is not for everyone.

“It was exciting at first but then there was mental hardships. At times I felt like an adventurer. Other times I felt like a scumbag coming to work with pine needles in my hair,” Gudbranson said. He was a server at a popular restaurant. “I almost got fired numerous times when customers complained I smelled like smoke. It was campfire smoke. Even if I showered—which wasn’t often—it was in my clothes. There was no time to do laundry; I was working three jobs. I probably would have been fired but we were so short-staffed all summer my boss couldn’t afford to let anyone go.”

Under-homed

Yes, housing has always been a challenge in Jackson Hole, and camping the solution for many 90-day wonders who arrive with the tourist onslaught and blow town when the aspens turn. But many of today’s homeless live here, and raise families here. Brandy Borts is perhaps the poster child for the under-housed. She’s not homeless. She has never really been homeless. But she’s never had a home.

“This month marks my 20th year in Jackson. I have moved 40 times. One year I moved seven times,” Borts said. “I’ve got it down to four Rubbermaid bins and some yard sale furniture. My current place is under contract. If the sale goes through I will have six months to move. That will be 10 total units right downtown, gone.”

Borts said move No. 41 might be the one that breaks the camel’s back.

“The thought of packing again … it’s no way to live, especially when you are in your 40s. I haven’t stressed myself out about it yet. I’m not ready to have a standoff with the bulldozers or anything. But it’s frustrating and I’m thinking about leaving town this time. I don’t want to deal with the madness—spending 15 or 18 hundred for a small apartment.”

Borts is contemplating a move to Salt Lake if she is once again ousted from her digs. A friend there recently bought a condo for less than $100,000, she says. Borts has been on the lottery list for affordable housing for the past 12 years.

Since 1996, Borts has been fortunate enough to find or make places to rent that were borderline livable.

“I’ve lived in places that were probably a health hazard—black mold and things like that. I’ve always taken ghetto, shantytown places and turned them into tiny house living situations. I’ve lived in a shed before. I’ve lived in a 9-by-13 [foot] cinderblock bunker. All I need is a bed to sleep in and a place to shower,” Borts said. “I’ve always been fortunate enough to find these little places that are under the radar. But now, this is the absolute worst that I’ve ever seen it. We all wish we would have bought something in the 90s but when you are 21 you don’t think of things like that. After 20 years, I have a great job and I feel like a part of the community, but I’ve never felt at home.”

Quick fix Band-Aid?

O’Connor has been approached by town leaders about creating a temporary workforce camping area on forest land. One location suggested was Hoback Junction where WYDOT is currently using B-T land to stage construction for a bridge over the Snake River that has remained unfinished for years while engineers try to solve a major structural snafu.

Initially, the idea had merit. The site was already disturbed, according to O’Connor, and therefore would not have an adverse impact on the national forest. Such a solution would also alleviate pressure experienced in undeveloped areas of the forest seeing heavy use, O’Connor said.

Then O’Connor ran into roadblocks.

“Most of the site is either within WYDOT’s easement or within a permitted area for their future highway project. We are not sure they would be in agreement to this. They are checking on it but their initial feedback indicated it seemed like an unsuitable site for something like this,” O’Connor said. “In addition, this being in a wild and scenic river corridor, there are some potential issues to resolve of whether something like this is even compatible with the law. Even if it were, we would have to do some level of environmental analysis, which will take time. The other issue is that we generally do not permit activities on Forest Service land that can be accommodated on private land so I am wondering whether the city has exhausted all options for leasing on private lands.”

Flitner, McLaurin, and others assured O’Connor most every option had been explored and exhausted in the search for immediate temporary housing. Even if a partnership between the town, county and Forest Service does materialize, no relief will be found this summer.

“While this may have looked at first blush like an easy fix, it is not. And we don’t have any other easy fixes for this summer,” O’Connor said.

The forest super added that she was open to long-term solutions with the local government as long as the town or county was willing to operate and manage a permitted forest site. McLaurin acknowledged the town would be responsible for policing any man camp, and would provide sanitary facilities, screening, transportation and other amenities.

”It sounds like the Hoback site is off the table,” Flitner said. “But we are exploring two other parcels—one south of town and one on the West Bank.”

Flitner added that several private citizens have shown interest in helping out. “I just talked to two this morning,” she said. One has offered to look into purchasing recreational park trailers (RPTs) from nearby energy fields that are experiencing a severe downturn.

Tim Rieser is one resident who has been actively involved in finding solutions to the valley’s housing crunch. He offered his assistance to town officials in developing a workforce camp in early spring. He is frustrated by the lack of interest he received and the town’s apparent surprise every summer that the situation quickly escalates to crisis mode.

“I sent every elected an email offering my time, money and planning to get a workforce housing campsite in place. I reminded them they did nothing last year and warned them this summer would be worse. Only one of the 10 even bothered to reply,” Rieser said. “We are a week-and-a-half away from the Fourth of July weekend and they are only talking about it now? Town and county are a $90 million a year business. They have the ability to pull off something as simple as this. My only conclusion is they don’t want to until things are on fire.”  PJH

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