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Are Homeless People Living in the National Parks?

It’s no secret that homelessness is a major issue in the United States. Some may assume official homeless shelters are the only homes for these individuals, but many also find shelter outside cities and towns. Have you ever wondered if homeless people are living in our national parks or forests?

Many homeless people have been living in campsites and makeshift homes in wilderness areas throughout these public lands. The question then arises: who are they, what is bringing them here, and how many actually live in our national parks?

Today, we’ll explore the types of homelessness found within public lands and why segments of our population may choose this lifestyle.

Who owns the "wilderness"? - Elyse Cox

Are Homeless People Living in the National Parks?

Homelessness is an issue affecting many people in the United States. Amid a nationwide housing crisis, the problem has become increasingly visible in the most unlikely of places: America’s national parks.

It’s heartbreaking and disconcerting to learn that so many people seek shelter in nature’s sanctuaries. Despite the logistical and environmental concerns involved, government officials have no choice but to try to find a humane way to help these campers living in the parks out of necessity.

The reality is that law enforcement can evict them. Homeless or not, park safety rules must remain enforced.

Scenic view of US national park
Now more than ever before, homeless people are seeking shelter in nature’s sanctuary.

Why Would a Person Experiencing Homelessness Want to Live in a National Park?

Encampments have been popping up in national forests and parks all over the country for the past several years. Many of these dwellings belong to homeless individuals and families with no options other than living on federal property.

Some of these people rely on makeshift shelters, sleeping in cars or trailers, or setting up camping tents as a temporary solution until they can get back on their feet. Some get stuck in this situation for the long haul due to economic disparities and inadequate housing.

People who struggle with homelessness often have no safe place to go. National parks can provide those in need with shelter from the elements and a sense of security away from wandering dangerous city streets.

The seclusion of national parks and their natural beauty can also give those experiencing homelessness much-needed healing moments to connect with nature and restore some hope for better days ahead.

Pro Tip: Make sure you know these 12 National Park Etiquette Rules You’re Probably Breaking before your next adventure.

Homeless man camping in national park

Why Don’t More Homeless People Live in the Wilderness?

While the wilderness of national parks and forests appeal to some, not all feel safe in nature. The fear of wild animals, lack of public facilities, and loneliness are just a few of the reasons people may choose to remain in a more urban area than in the wilderness. Not may people, in general, have the survival skills to live off the land, so having access to stores, restaurants, and organizations that help the homeless is a powerful incentive to stay in more developed areas.

Pro Tip: The money you spend to go to national parks can help keep them clean. Check out these other 5 Reasons to Avoid Free National Park Days.

What Is the Difference Between Non-Recreational Camping and Dispersed Camping?

Dispersed camping is a legal form of camping on public lands in non-developed campsites. You are “dispersed” on the land for a temporary amount of time, often dictated by permits or established stay limits by the managing organization to prevent overuse. Many national parks also consider backcountry camping a form of dispersed camping where hikers get permits and haul their camping gear with them.

However, many individuals who live in a national park or forest as their primary residence camp in a non-recreational, non-permitted way. While perhaps “dispersed,” living in these areas can involve establishing permanent shelters, homesteads, and settlements. These setups can damage the land and its resources over time.

Unfortunately, this is frequently done illegally by homeless people with nowhere else to go. While they may remain off-the-grid for a while, it ultimately damages the environment and depletes resources.

Mortons on the Move RV camping in national park
While it is possible to camp in national parks, long-term camping can result in high fines.

Is It Illegal to Live in a National Park or National Forest? 

Living and camping long-term in national parks is illegal and can result in hefty fines. The National Park Service has taken a broad stance against living in these areas. Long-term camping is only permitted in certain areas or with a permit, usually for 14 to 21 days.

Although many don’t face the immediate consequences of ignoring the law, it is important to understand that those who choose to reside within national forests or parks break federal law. And the repercussions can be serious.

Psst! There are rumors about feral people living in national parks. Do you believe the stories?

Are Homeless People Living in National Parks and Forests Damaging the Land? 

Homeless people living in national parks have become a big concern, as the safety and health of these individuals are closely intertwined with the condition of our public lands.

Reports from various nature conservation groups have raised alarms about homeless populations damaging the parks. These people often build campsites, leaving behind traces of their presence and potentially damaging the land.

However, it is important to recognize that many of these individuals didn’t come to the parks with unethical intentions. Rather, for many of them, it is simply a place to live without fear of punishment from law enforcement, overcrowding in homeless shelters, or feeling endangered by city crime.

Some request a sustainable solution that considers the protection of our natural resources and provides aid to the homeless population to ensure the long-term sustainability of our forests and parks.

homeless man sitting on sidewalk
Apart from health and safety concerns, increased homeless populations in national parks can cause damage to the nature.

What States Have the Most Homelessness?

Homelessness plagues many states across the United States. According to the latest statistics from World Population Review, California has over 161,548 individuals claiming homelessness.

This is closely followed by New York, which has an estimated 91,300 individuals without a permanent home. In addition, Florida and Texas both have more than 27,000 people facing homelessness, while Washington State hosts nearly 23,000 individuals struggling with housing insecurity.

Though these numbers are alarming, the actual population of homeless people may exceed the official count due to difficulty in accessing those numbers.

Pro Tip: Looking for a unique national park experience? Explore one of these 6 Out of the Way National Parks That Are Worth the Extra Effort.

Scenic view of national park
Supporting local homeless shelters is the best way to ensure homelessness in national parks decreases.

What Are Solutions for Ending Homeless Living in National Parks? 

As with any problem, you don’t always have a simple solution. As it stands, there are several ways of trying to mitigate homelessness in national parks.

Most of the ways to lessen people experiencing homelessness moving into the national parks is to make it easier for them to get support in towns and cities. Providing access to support for personal hygiene, such as restrooms, showers, etc., is critical to helping people stay healthy and find work.

Additionally, having shelters available during emergencies, providing access to computers and phones, and connecting people with various social service resources can help reduce the need for homeless people to venture off into the parks and forests. Having a support system to help meet people’s basic needs can avert or at least reduce the duration of homelessness. 

Forcing people to move out of the national parks is only temporary. They can then move on to another location until they’re found and must move from there as well. It is a vicious circle that doesn’t lead to a solution.

FERAL PEOPLE IN NATIONAL PARKS

What Are the Dos and Don’ts of National Parks?

Whether you are homeless, simply trying to find a place to stay, or you consider yourself a nomad that lives on the road but isn’t homeless, national parks have rules you must follow when taking advantage of dispersed camping. Breaking the rules can have serious consequences.

Generally speaking, campsites must be at least 200 feet away from any water source (such as a river or lake) and roads. You must gather firewood responsibly from dead wood on the ground. And you can’t have an open fire closer than 100 feet from a water source. You can drive a vehicle up to 300 feet from designated routes for purposes of dispersed camping as long as you cause no damage to resources, such as vegetation trampling. 

It is best to stick to previously disturbed routes and choose previously created campsites instead of making new ones whenever possible. Most stays have a limit of 14 days within 30 days unless otherwise noted. And everyone should adhere to the Leave No Trace Principles. These boil down to reducing your impact, respecting wildlife and other people, and leaving your site as good as or better than you found it.

Whether you are homeless or recreating, following these rules and principles will help reduce our impact on the environment and your risk of a run-in with law enforcement. 

But hopefully, we can create solutions to solve homelessness in our communities, so camping in a national park or forest is a choice and not a necessity.

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About Tom and Caitlin Morton

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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Jim Niemann

Saturday 3rd of June 2023

I have serious doubts surrounding the governments true intentions regarding humans having extended stays on public land. The forest service builds roads for timber allotments. We taxpayers supplement the destruction of the same forests homeless are chased out of. The same holds true for BLM lands. A vast majority of the maintained roads are for mining operations, we pay for those roads while mining claims cost a few hundred dollars per year. The mining sites are rarely if ever reclaimed fully. I know many people that would gladly pay for 6 month permits like the LTVA's offer. Unfortunatey there are no cool weather LTVA's. Livestock have more rights than humans on public land. They soil the waterways and destroy the vegetation. Ask any boondocker if they see cattle camping in streams and doing their business anywhere they feel like. Boondockers must move every 2 weeks, while cattle get to stay there all summer. Ranchers pay as little as 3 dollars a month for a cow/ calf pair to use public resources. It's ashame we cant tolerate the needy amongst us, but cows, sheep, mining, and forestry operations can do as they please on public land.

Ryan

Tuesday 28th of February 2023

Having experienced bouts of shelterlessness, I thank you for approaching this issue carefully. All too often those without permanent homes and low incomes are seen as subhuman. That they do not deserve the same amount of respect and dignity as any other typical life person automatically receives anywhere they go. It is hard enough to live your life in view of the public eye, but it becomes downright mentally maddening when the looks you get from every person looking in on your publicly displayed life are ones of judgement and fear. The truth is the more society excludes those with no shelter, the less care they take of themselves and the area in which they stay. A simple smile is often enough to want to pick up the trash you inadvertently have left around your makeshift home. Yes, not all people out doors will keep a clean camp, but not all people who live indoors keep a clean home, it's just you cannot see behind the door and walls of theirs. If certain people follow the rules like we are all supposed to, I don't see why living nomadically within a national park is an issue. Albeit, permitting can be expensive, but still nowhere near rent in some areas. However, whether you are trying to live in a national park, or camp a weekend, if you are a terrible person the site will be trashed for those that wish to potentially use it again, so really the message of your article should not have much to do with unsheltered folks as much as it should have to do with LEAVING IT BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT.

Andrea Schmidlin

Sunday 12th of February 2023

Thank you for displaying empathy in your article. This is a difficult problem and too often is treated like it’s simple, with a “round ‘em up” approach. I appreciate that you see homeless individuals as humans with dignity and value.