Editor’s note: This story by Patrick Adrian was first published in the Valley News on Dec. 10.
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Ongoing complaints by Hartford residents about old motor homes being stored on public and private lots has stoked community dialogue about the challenges of parking enforcement, as well as homelessness and obstacles to escaping poverty in the Upper Valley.
Dwayne Robinson, 50, spent much of this past week in a parking lot outside the McDonald’s restaurant on Beswick Drive in White River Junction, trying to repair the transmission on his camper, a 1972 Chevy Coachmen that he purchased two months ago as a work vehicle.
Since June, Robinson, a former Windsor resident, has been living with his girlfriend and son at the Upper Valley Haven family shelter. He acquired the Coachmen for $1,000 as a means of transportation to job sites, where he does painting, carpentry and other home repair services.
“I never used (the Coachmen) for camping in,” Robinson told the Valley News. “It has always been my work vehicle.”
On Wednesday morning, with the vehicle repairs still unfinished, Robinson’s vehicle was towed to an impound lot.
To retrieve the vehicle Robinson will need to pay the $350 towing fee plus the additional daily storage fee of $75 per day.
Robinson currently doesn’t have the money, nor does he expect to retrieve it once he does.
“Even if I could pay for it, there is nowhere I am allowed to put it,” Robinson said.
Caught in a firestorm
Until last week, Robinson had regularly parked his camper at the Upper Valley Haven, which provides residents with parking as long as the vehicle is either registered or in the registration process.
“Owning a car is typically important to finding work and staying employed,” said Haven Executive Director Michael Redmond, who noted that many Haven residents have jobs but are not financially stable, which inhibits finding permanent housing.
But Robinson’s vehicle began to draw the attention of Haven neighbors, who were already raising complaints about other motor homes, which they alleged were being used primarily for camping illegally on public or private property.
One motor home, a Fleetwood Southwind, was the central source of public complaint. For months, the Southwind had been using public lots around town, parking for days or weeks in a location before moving to another.
Beginning Nov. 16, the Southwind had parked at the state Park and Ride lot on Hartford Avenue, a few blocks from the Haven, according to Hartford Acting Assistant Manager Paula Nulty.
Hartford town administrators, who had the Southwind motor home towed to an impound lot on Nov. 30, said there had been complaining for months about the motor home being a public nuisance. The complaints included the presence of litter, as well as stray fuel containers, loud or rude behavior by the vehicle occupants and reports of dogs that would act aggressively to passersby.
Many residents reported feeling intimidated when having to pass the motor home, Nulty said.
Residents also turned their complaints toward Robinson’s vehicle, which Robinson felt was unwarranted.
“I have always taken my trash with me and I have never used my vehicle for camping,” Robinson said. “I am suffering the backlash because of people associating my vehicle with his.”
Robinson said he knows the Southwind owner, Joseph James Wright, and would sometimes try to help him make vehicle repairs, which is why residents saw the two vehicles together in the same lot.
Robinson has also had to park his camper overnight alongside the Southwind due to engine troubles, which Robinson said is expected of a 50-year-old recreational vehicle that had been sitting idle for five years prior to his acquiring it.
“I think there’s been a lot of stereotyping (by the community) because it looks like an old RV — and it is an old RV,” Robinson said.
On Nov. 29, during a Selectboard meeting discussion about the RVs and illegally parked vehicles, some residents criticized the Haven for allowing Robinson to park his camper.
“How is this beautifying the property by allowing this stuff to happen?” Wilder resident Doris Villandry asked during public comments, when describing the state of Robinson’s vehicle during a day of repairs.
Last week the Haven, worried in part about the negative conflation of Robinson’s vehicle with the Southwind, asked Robinson to move his camper off the property, Robinson said.
“I’m suffering the backlash,” Robinson said.
Looking behind the wheel
For people without permanent homes, vehicle ownership creates a precarious conundrum. Whether using an automobile for transportation, as Robinson does, or as a living space, parking is a neccessity.
Doug Josler, owner of Sabil & Sons, a towing and auto-repair company in White River Junction, has seen a considerable share of people living out of their vehicles. He is frequently called by property owners to remove “abandoned vehicles,” which in Vermont classifies as any vehicle that remains on public or private property without permission for a certain period of time.
“We probably have at least eight (abandoned) vehicles right now,” Josler said, two days before he would be called to tow Robinson’s camper.
Under Vermont law, vehicle owners have 30 days to claim their vehicle from an impoundment lot. After that, the state Department of Motor Vehicles may transfer the ownership to another party.
Most abandoned vehicles go unclaimed, Josler said, because the owners lack the money to cover towing fees or repairs needed to make the vehicle drivable.
“The owner will want you to give them back the vehicle for, say, $50 when you have already put $200 of repairs into it,” Josler said.
Owners sometimes attempt to break into their vehicles to retrieve left-behind items. Other people regularly sneak into the lot at night just to sleep in a vacant vehicle.
One winter, Josler responded to a woman whose car had run out of gas on a highway. The woman was living in her vehicle and had no money to pay for gasoline. Josler brought the car and the woman back to his station. The woman slept in her vehicle there for two or three nights until family members from the Virginia area got her a bus ticket to return home.
According to Redmond, homeless individuals do not come to Hartford or the Upper Valley with an intent to be homeless. Typically, the person came for a reason, such as a job or a relationship, “but things did not work out for them,” he said.
Because of the hassles associated with abandoned vehicles, many towing companies are reluctant to take them in.
“It’s really hard to hire a tow company,” Nulty told the Selectboard on Nov. 29. “It’s their livelihood and they don’t know how they are going to get paid.”
Hartford, which recently signed a towing services agreement with Twin Line Towing & Recovery, of Windsor, to remove the Southwind RV, had to guarantee the payment of fees. The agreement states that Hartford will assume the costs of a towed vehicle should the owner not claim it — $1,000 for the towing and $80 per day for the vehicle storage.
Josler had offered to tow the vehicles for the town, at a significantly lesser price, but the town would have to provide the storage lot. Town administrators determined this would not be a feasible solution. In addition to lacking a space where the vehicles could be adequately secured, the town does not have a fee system to charge the owners a vehicle retrieval cost.
The town currently does not have money allocated for vehicle towing, Acting Town Manager Gail Ostrout told the Selectboard at the Nov. 29 meeting.
Finding that funding “is going to be a townwide effort,” Ostrout said. “We are responding to residents and taxpayers who said they want something to be done about it and that means staff members need to make accommodations in their budgets to accommodate for it.”