Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Homeless and Hopeless in the Park: Parks Are Salvation for the Weary

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Homeless and Hopeless in the Park: Parks Are Salvation for the Weary

Article excerpt

For the past seven decades I have, for brief intervals, known homelessness--but thankfully hopelessness remains a stranger. Not everyone knows that America's public parks have a long tradition of providing remedies for both. During a recent visit to one of our major urban parks in the Northeast, I found myself obsessing about the role of parks in resolving America's homeless problem.

Issues of sanitation, safety, appropriateness and park attractiveness swirled around in my head along with the mission and role of parks in our society. I wondered how different is the hermit squatter in a wilderness park from the homeless squatter in an urban park? And, how different are both of them from "snowbirds"--those modern-day nomads, whose mobile homes are their only homes--going from park to park with no permanent address? What about the camper, who is between jobs and uses a park until affordable housing comes along?

It seems to me that the big difference is one of hope. In each of these examples, it is only the urban squatter that is without it, and this is the real American tragedy of the homeless.

The parks profession can hardly argue that homelessness is not a park problem, and still maintain that parks are for all people. Not only have the homeless dropped the problem in the lap of parks, to turn away now from those without hope would place parks in the untenable position of being detached from the problems of society.

So, l wondered, what might parks do for the homeless, besides conveniently look the other way? While I whole-heartedly subscribe to the maxim that "a problem accepted is a problem half way to its solution," I remain puzzled. How does a park dispense hope?

Of course we can partner with the shelters, the churches and the social service agencies in the search for solutions. Maybe we can provide meaningful work for tired people restoring tired parks. Perhaps by filling the parks with activities--day and night, every day of the year--more people will see the plight of the homeless and get involved. And, possibly, more of the homeless will find hope by being a bit closer to the society that they feel alienated from.

Parks should be able to encourage more government- and university-sponsored social research in the parks--problem-solving research on real issues. We should, at least, be capturing some of their stories. Those stories are every bit as important to include in the park annual report as are the visits by artists and school children. More use of parks by local schools, including school adoptions of nearby parks, will raise awareness of all park needs. …

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