Housing / Land Use

RV dwellers find temporary haven in San Benito County

Campground reservations are hard to come by during lockdown. COVID-19 situation leaves many in the lurch.

When national, state and local governments issued stay-at-home orders that shut down private and public campgrounds, an estimated 1 million full-time RV dwellers were potentially left homeless. A sense of fear and panic was palpable across social media as they reached out for guidance.

Among those were Angela and Eric Guerena, who have been staying at Thousand Trails RV Park in Paicines since the shelter-in-place order took effect in March.

The Guerenas are among other RV full-timers across America who have been impacted by sudden park shutdowns. They include professionals, retirees, gig economy workers and remote workers who have left their permanent homes to live a nomadic lifestyle. 

According to the Washington Post, in 2018 an estimated 1 million full-time RVers were out on the road, some on vacation and others choosing it as a mobile, lower cost lifestyle.

“Some have to do it because they can’t afford other options, but many do it by choice,” the article reads. “Last year was a record for RV sales, according to the data firm Statistical Surveys. More than 10.5 million households own at least one RV, a jump from 2005 when 7.5 million households had RVs, according to RVIA.” 

Angela and Eric are relieved to have been at San Benito RV Park for the last 2 months. Photo by Kirti Bassendine
Angela and Eric are relieved to have been at San Benito RV Park for the last two months. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.

Angela, 42, and Eric, 45, never envisioned the turmoil they would face as they sold their Colorado home in February and began to follow their dream of living by the beach.

They were camping at El Capitan State Park outside of Santa Barbara and Eric saw on their internet hotspot that state parks would be closing that day, Angela said. “At first we thought we were getting kicked out. Then they told us we had until the next day to find a spot. Relief! Next minute, they told us we had to get out that day!”

Just before California’s shelter-in-place order took effect, the Guerenas, like others who live in RVs regularly, scrambled to find a place to stay, feeling a sense of panic and having little information to guide them. Things were closing down fast.

“Now we are in limbo!” Angela said. “We are so grateful that we have been able to stay here and shelter in place.” They were scheduled to stay until May 15, stayed on a few more days and then moved on.

California’s parks and campgrounds are expected to open during Stage Three of the state’s Resilience Roadmap reopening plan. However, because counties are adjusting at different speeds, RV dwellers must navigate a landscape of closures and restrictions. RV industry organizations are lobbying the state to instead approve campground re-openings in Stage Two, according to the RV Industry Association.

Rick Sicurella, 66, and Theresa Kovacs, 63, are also staying at Thousand Trails.

“We’re ‘fulltimers’ here in San Benito also since March 13,” Kovacs said. “We too are very thankful to Thousand Trails for allowing us to stay. Now the only anxiety is to figure out where and when to go next.”

Current information on Campendium, a camper’s website said, “With many state, national and private campsites still closed many fulltimers are in a limbo – as they decide where to go next and how. As of 5/20/2020, 36.44% of U.S. based campsites listed on Campendium are closed due to COVID-19, down from a high of 46% in late April.

Additionally, 29 out of 50 state park campgrounds systems are currently closed, have delayed opening, or are open to state residents only and many overnight stops at casinos are closed entirely.”

Full-time RV dwellers are now wondering whether to stay where they are, or move on. Staying put may reduce the risk of exposure to new people and places, which could reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, especially for people over 65 or others with underlying conditions.

However, because reservations are scheduled to end soon, many RV dwellers will be forced to move on. Meanwhile, future reservations have been canceled, leaving some frantically trying to find open campsites.

Thousand Trails is slowly opening up its other parks across the state and elsewhere, depending on the area’s COVID-19 restrictions. A typical stay is two to three weeks, but many RV dwellers have gone beyond the extensions usually offered by the park.

Mellisa and her partner wondering what steps to take next. Photo by Kirti Bassendine
Melissa and her partner wondering what steps to take next. Photo by Kirti Bassendine.

Melissa Engel and her partner Phillip both lost work as umpires for this year’s baseball and softball season. They had games booked in several cities, but everything was canceled due to COVID-19.

“We were here at San Benito and very grateful to be here, but unfortunately we lost most of our income for the year,” Melissa Engel said.

With few choices available, RV dwellers are forced to book more expensive campgrounds, adding financial strain to families already challenged during this precarious time. The Engels now worry about becoming homeless. Both are barely getting by on Philip’s monthly $1,000 disability payment, and the next umpire season is a long way off.                               

This mobile demographic may continue to receive modest extensions to their camping reservations, especially if Oregon and Washington parks remain closed. Sometimes RV dwellers find themselves hopping from one location to another, hoping to settle for at least a week or more. If their luck runs out, they will try the closest Walmart parking lot, county fairgrounds or just find a low profile spot off the side of the road.


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Kirti Bassendine

Kirti Bassendine is a photographer, storyteller and journalist. She graduated with BA Honors in Fine Art Photography from Derby University, England. Following several exhibitions focusing on cultural identity that toured the United Kingdom, she settled in the United States and spent 30+ years combining professional photography with fine art projects. Over the last six years, her artwork has focused on cultural storytelling through still photography and videography. As an artist she has always been intrigued by human relationships and how they interweave within social and cultural contexts – especially women's sense of identity and belonging within their culture and the wider world; how homelessness and nomadic ways of life are perceived; and how its subcultures integrate or conflict with modern society.