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Reversing 'trailer trash' image

PHOTO COURTESY ST. VINCENT DE PAUL OF LANE COUNTY - Volunteers from the city of Oakridge fire department and city administration dig postholes for a fence surrounding a new family park and picnic area being added to the Oakridge Mobile Home Park.Outdated and unfair stereotypes about mobile home parks and “trailer trash” still linger in the public’s mind. But sometimes there are circumstances that engender such stereotypes.

Up until a couple years ago, residents of Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Lane County were afraid to leave their homes, especially at night.

Drug dealing and illegal drug use were rampant at the 63-unit complex. Gunshots often could be heard from two blocks away. Domestic violence was out in the open.

“The ambulances in our community would not respond unless they had police backup when they went to this park,” says Gienia Baines, who lived there as a teenage mom and recently returned as a social worker for St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, which bought the dilapidated complex in May 2014.

“The police said on a typical day they responded three to four times” to Oakridge Mobile Home Park, Baines says. “They said it was 50 percent of all of Oakridge, the calls went to that park.”

The city has about 3,400 residents.

When St. Vincent de Paul took over the park, the nonprofit learned that two residents were part of a gang of five brothers from California that dealt drugs, Baines says. The place was hopping after midnight from drug deals and the antics of people high on drugs.

Some people were squatting at abandoned units; others weren’t paying their $265 space rent, but the manager never cracked down. “The on-site manager, let’s say he had some addiction issues,” Baines says.

St. Vincent de Paul didn’t have a lot of money, but started making incremental improvements.

Eight dumpsters of trash were removed, and new rules were imposed. Residents can no longer smoke a joint or do a line of cocaine in the laundry room, or walk through the park with an open can of beer. Baines started doing drive-throughs — and getting personal threats. A security company that used police cadets in training was hired to patrol the complex.

“Within a week it changed,” Baines says.

They observed 25 visitors to one man’s unit between midnight and 4 a.m. He was warned that’s illegal under city code, a sign of drug dealing. One of the two brothers in the gang was evicted because he hadn’t been paying his space rent.

Though he moved in with his other brother there, St. Vincent de Paul wound up offering that brother $2,500 for his unit; he accepted the cash and moved out.

PHOTO COURTESY ST. VINCENT DE PAUL OF LANE COUNTY - Gienia Baines, director of social services for St. Vincent de Paul in Oakridge, works with volunteers from Home Depot to build new play structures at the Oakridge Mobile Home Park. St. Vincent de Paul was able to buy 10 new single-wide mobile homes for $40,000 each, replacing the most dilapidated units. Leftover water heaters and other abandoned appliances were given to other residents who could use them.

The nonprofit has erected an office and meeting space, and is building a family area with a barbecue pit and picnic tables, children’s play structure and gazebo. Baines visits two days a week to do social work and referrals, much as it does with its low-income apartments.

St. Vincent de Paul monitors the city’s police logs to measure progress on combating crime. “We’re getting about three to five calls a month now,” Baines says. But now the calls tend to be about bike thefts or other lesser crimes, instead of knifings and husbands beating up their wives in public.

The police say that crime in the park has fallen about 95 percent since St. Vincent de Paul took over.

St. Vincent de Paul owns five mobile home parks in Lane County, which could provide a model for nonprofits or housing authorities in the Portland area, to help avert a potential wave of mobile home park closures here.

The nonprofit also operates low-income apartments elsewhere in Lane County, and finds it’s a lot cheaper to bring in a brand-new mobile home to its parks than to build a new low-income apartment, says Terry McDonald, executive director.

“People take a lot of pride in the fact that they own their home,” Baines says. “I don’t think just because someone’s in poverty, they should be forced into apartments.”

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@SteveLawTrib