Campground Becomes ‘Home’ for the ‘Almost Homeless’
Terry Lee Ballard holds a sign when he goes looking for work in front of hardware stores. It reads: “No job. No food. Almost homeless.”
He’s almost homeless because he lives at a campground in a tent with a roommate, two cats and a dog.
Drive through Timberline Campground about 30 miles west of Nashville , Tenn., and it’s difficult to see the difference between Ballard’s campsite and some of his vacationing neighbors, but a closer look reveals he and others aren’t here by choice, according to Associated Press.
The 110-site campground welcomes people who have lost their homes but not their desire to keep their families together, out of homeless shelters and off the streets.
Ballard, who at 52 has worked as a songwriter and construction worker, tries to make the best of his situation. Outside a mesh window of his tent, an electric air conditioner blows a cool breeze into the nylon dome, which can heat up like a greenhouse under the Tennessee sun.
Wooden pallets covered in carpet scraps cover the floor of the tent keeping his bed, coffee maker, electric two-burner unit and toaster oven off the sometimes soggy ground.
“The cool thing is, it’s a place to live and I don’t feel homeless as long as I have this,” said Ballard, whose behind on campground rent payments. “But we’re about to lose this.”
Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said many people like Ballard move to campgrounds when they find themselves without permanent housing.
Campgrounds offer more independence than homeless shelters, which often have strict rules, he said. And they allow families to stay together, where most shelters are segregated by gender.
Many people like Ballard move to campgrounds when they find themselves without permanent housing but soon wind up on the streets, said Neil Donovan who is the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
But some campgrounds frown upon being seen as this type of host.
Timberline is different. Manager Tammy Page hasn’t kept count but knows the number of people moving here for economic reasons has increased over the past year. Rent is $325 a month for a site big enough to hold a camper and picnic table. The rate includes water and electricity plus laundry facilities, showers and access to a pool.
Page maintains a small food bank in the office, and has school supplies to give away to children. Donated clothes are kept in the laundry room if campers need them.
Social workers and volunteers from local charities frequent the sight, so much so that a little girl who saw a reporter interview her mother asked, “Momma, is that our case worker?”
Tennessee’s unemployment rate has increased to 10.7% in July, in part because of the loss of construction and manufacturing jobs. The state consistently ranks high in bankruptcies, and was 8th nationally in mortgage delinquencies at the end of the second quarter, according to numbers provided by the Mortgage Bankers Association.
The Renaults, a family of six, live next to Ballard.
His tent used to be their home but they passed it along when good Samaritans who read about their financial troubles in a local newspaper donated a small camper to the family.
Tammy Renault lives there with her husband, Troy Renault, and children ages 17, 16, 4 and 2. They were in a nice lease-to-own house in the Nashville suburbs before her husband lost his job as an assistant project manager for a construction company.
Then the family was evicted.
“We rented a storage building and we had a tent for camping,” she said. “So I said, ‘Let’s go camping. Let’s go take a vacation.'”
Steve Samra, who works in homeless outreach in Nashville, said he has been seeing more and more people like the Renaults.
“Usually what will happen is I’ll get a request for a food box and somebody will roll in in a vehicle that’s not in a state of disrepair or old, but I’ll look and see that it’s full of clothes,” he said.
Although Timberline has seen better days — paint on the office and clubhouse is peeling and the tennis courts are weedy, without nets — many residents feel lucky to be here. The campground is safe. It’s next to elementary and middle schools. And there’s room for children to run around and play.
Since Tammy Renault moved here in June, she has become a sort of campground mother, dispensing advice and offering help to other residents. In August, she and her husband organized a fundraiser to help pay the rent owed by Ballard and others who were falling behind.
She said her fellow campers have become an extended family. On a recent afternoon, they prepared a shared meal from donated food. One person brought a rack of ribs. Another cooked the meat. Another made mashed potatoes.
“I can honestly say I’ve never shed a tear about being out here,” she said.