Common Ground

Story and Photos by Brenna English Chapman


Some call them concentration camps, others call them glorified outhouses, but 25 percent of Montanan’s call their trailers home. Some residents praise them to high heaven, and others damn them to hell. Still, all the residents know, as do the increasing numbers of Montanan’s choosing to dwell in trailers, that when it comes down to it, at least they have a safe place to rest their heads, even if it is only for the time being.

When I first moved to Missoula, the first thing I noticed were all the trailers, scattered in courts and throughout the Big Sky landscape, and I was intrigued. If so many of Montana residents are residing in trailers in increasing numbers than there must be a reason for it. So I set out to document every day life in trailer courts in and around the Missoula area, photographing and writing, letting the residents themselves represent what it means to live in one.

For some Montanans, Montana is not the last best place, thier trailers are. Some people live in them as a first resort, and others as a last. Some people thank God for them, and others swear to God that they don’t want to ever live in another one. To some, trailers symbolize freedom. To others, they are just as bad as imprisonment. Some people rent, and some people are paying to own. Some people live in them because they want something to claim as thier own. Some people live in them just until they get back on their feet again or generate enough income to purchase their own home, with a foundation that doesn’t sway with the passing wind. Trailers are affordable. They are cheaper than renting a home or an apartment in town. Most college kids are not competing for lot space. They don’t have to have neighbors against one wall or another, there is always grass in between. Trailers allow pets. Some people were born and raised in trailers, others have been newly initiated. Trailer parks are close-knit communities. Trailers can be moved, they are transitional. Trailers mean no strings attached, no committments. Trailers mean stability in an unstable world, in a state defined by low wages and a high cost of living.

Trailers vary in character as much as the people living in them. Some people are retired,others are on housing vouchers. Some are unemployed, some have bad credit, others are hiding from the law or the lives they knew before. Some are hermits, some are abusive drinkers and drug users who can do as they please as long as they pay their bills, yet the majority are just existing, working and raising their
children the best way they know how, balancing on the fringe.

Stomping Ground

At the antique store in front of Futura Trailer Park, the grass pushes through the cracks in the concrete the same way some people residing in Futura push for a better life for themselves and their families. But many don’t know how to keep from wilting in the meantime, under the suppressive reign of the landlords they rent from.

Futura Court leases about 70 trailers to residents, tucked behind Broadway, just outside the city limits of Missoula, where low-flying planes remind residents of every place they cannot get to because they are stuck where they are, determined not to let the conditions they live in define who they are. It is a quiet court, a sleeping giant in need of a wake-up call except when the children return home from school, or at 4 a.m. when the parties are just getting started. Futura is a court that residents call the “ Last Chance Ranch,” a court that for many is a last resort because they can’t afford to go anywhere else and most places can’t afford to take them in.

But the price is not cheap. Between lot rent and the cost to rent the trailer, residents are shelling out $600 a month, a pretty penny for the conditions they are living in, some trapped by restrictions on housing vouchers, and others from bad credit and a better place to go. And it is a roof over their head, whether it leaks water or not. Residents at Futura have repeatedly asked the owners to improve the conditions they are facing, such as sewage coming up through their bathtubs and showers, water pouring through their light fixtures, holes in the wall raising heating costs to exorbitant levels, mold growth on their walls and under their carpets from water damage, windows and doors violating safety codes and health hazards, and Mickey Mouse repair jobs done by untrained repairmen.

Futura residents are tired, but they refuse to let the issue rest, because regardless of whether they rent or own their trailer they still have pride. Like resident, Heidi Pike explains, it’s hard to maintain that pride in a court with overflowing recycling bins and a central pond as the local sewage dump where stray cats congregate on stray mattresses left to rot out in the courtyard that Pike claims just enforces stereotypes about people who live in trailers. She says that the negligent landlords give the people living in trailers their bad name. “ Living here just makes you feel dumpy, like trailer trash,” Pike says. “ There’s always garbage blowing around.”

Another resident of Futura, Laurie Pulp says as soon as she can get out of debt she is going to pack up her and her kids, and all their belongings and find a place where they can hold their heads high, like they used to when she was a student at the university living in family housing. But as a single mom, working full-time and raising two kids on bad credit, she knows it’s probably a long way away. But she is determined, and gets more determined each day she goes without hot water to take a shower or wash the dishes that that the situation is only temporary as it is for many of the Futura residents.

“The only reason I am here is because my credit is bad so it’s really impossible to get a place in town and they let me move in here without giving them a dime,” Pulp says. “ I told them I didn’t have the deposit money and they told me not to worry about it right away, and that’s how they get you.” Pulp said the owners were charging a five dollar a day late charge for every day she went without paying the deposit, and Pulp says that the owners drown people in their own debt to maintain control over them. “ We could be paying a lot less, but it’s almost impossible to get a place with bad credit,” said Pulp. “ So people come out to Futura where they jack up the prices but let anyone in; there are no background checks, no reference checks, or anything,” Pulp says because virtually anyone can live in Futura court they often are sharing the grass that separate their trailer with people who are on unemployed, collecting welfare, doing drugs, or running from the law, but Pulp says the majority of the people living in Futura are hardworking, descent people who deserve to live better. “ Almost every one out here is so decent, and it’s too bad that the owners have to take advantage of that.”

Pulp is so optimistic; she laughs heartily about the way the way her and her two girls have to live. She said sometimes there’s nothing else to do but laugh, and mentioned that the only thing she can find different about living in a trailer verses an apartment or a house is its shape. “ I’m just living long now, instead of up and down.” Pulp said. “ All I do is just go to work and raise my kids.”

At the Outpost Campground on Highway 93, nestled in the hills of what long-time residents have coined “ Boobie Hill,” resembling a female breast, trailer life is drastically different. Marge Stevenson, owner of the park since 1988 says most people are so content they can’t even keep track of what day it is. It is a court of some permanent, some non-permanent people taking up residence for a night, a week, or a month or more.

“Sometimes they just spend the night and leave, or a week, or they stay for years, like Lloyd out there,” said Stevenson. “ In fact, I’ve got a couple coming in tomorrow who are staying for the whole summer like they did last year.” Stevenson is a widowed woman, left behind by her husband to tend to the needs of those who take up residence and tended by them in return. Chery Kolka, a resident at Outpost Campground sees some 12-packs of pop sitting on the floor beside the cooler in Marge’s general store and as she is conversing with her, starts pulling them out of their plastic rings and places them in the freezer. “ Marge is real caring,” said Kolka. “ I feel like a sister friend with her.” Marge laughs at the stickers affixed to Kolka’s glasses and shakes her head at the woman who has become her friend after taking up residence at the Outpost Campground five years earlier. “ Yeah, but nobody wants to mess with grandma,” says Stevenson, referring to herself. “ They might see a little wildcat.”

For 73-year-old resident Lloyd Marshall, also known as “ Papa Lloyd,” because he has lived at the park for so many years, to see a real wildcat would be no surprise to a retired man with nothing more to do than watch the wildlife roam around the hills and watch the flowers and vegetables in his yard grow Lloyd says he is completely content living in his 40-foot trailer with tip-outs and he is more content with the price. “ Well, a regular house would cost between $800 and $900 a month,” Lloyd says, “ I got land, water, electricity, sewer, all for $260 a month.”