Toni Covington was only 60 when she died last week, just days after being forced out of the mobile home park she had lived in for more than 30 years. As reported by the Fresno Bee, she was found dead in an employee dorm room during a wellness check by the local sheriff’s department, called in after she didn’t show up for work at a Yosemite National Park concession.
Covington first arrived in Yosemite for a summer job when she was 19 and was so smitten with the place she never left, eventually moving into a mobile home at the El Portal Trailer Park, located along the Merced River just outside Yosemite’s western entrance. In the years that followed, starting around 2000, she and the other trailer park residents kept hearing that the park was about to be closed down for one reason or another. It never was–until it was, this time on the grounds that the overhead electrical lines had degraded so badly that they had become a fire hazard. That much probably was true.
But there are other truths. One is that, as is true in mobile home parks across the country, the residents own their homes but not the underlying land–and those homes are so old that they are anything but “mobile.” Being forced to move therefore amounts to becoming homeless, which is how Covington ended up spending her last days in a dorm room too small for her possessions, with a shared bathroom and kitchen, rather than in the three-bedroom residence she had called home for three decades.
Another truth is that some states–including California– recognize the extreme vulnerability of trailer park residents, as exemplified by Covington’s story, and therefore have mandated certain protections for them. Tenants are supposed to be given a year’s notice when their trailer park is going to be closed down; they’re also supposed to be offered appropriate relocation assistance. But the El Portal Trailer Park is on federal land, and so beyond the reach of state regulations; its residents weren’t notified until shortly before Christmas (happy holidays!) that they had 90 days to move or lose their mobile homes. No compensation or assistance to do this was offered.
The plight of El Portal’s now dispersed residents inadvertently highlights two developments that will only get worse without public policy intervention. One is the growing marginalization of people living in trailer courts, some by choice but many more out of necessity, as sky-rocketing rents and real estate prices have left few affordable housing alternatives. The second is the steadfast refusal of resort and recreational facility developers and operators to ensure adequate housing for the (typically underpaid) workforce they need to serve their customers.
Although a shared dorm facility may be a nifty experience for a 19-year-old working a summer job between college semesters, it’s hardly suitable for a 60-year-old woman who has spent two-thirds of her life working in the same community. Other resort areas have it even worse, with hotel, restaurant and giftshop workers living in tents or in their vans on national forest land–and the pricier the resort, like Vail in Colorado or Jackson Lake in Wyoming, the worse the problem. Developers of new properties, including the growing roster of proposed large RV parks, rarely include an analysis of local employee housing options along with their traffic surveys and environmental impact statements.
For Toni Covington, these are no longer matters of concern. Just why she died, less than a week after her involuntary move, isn’t known, but her autopsy was scheduled for today. It may not be able to determine if a broken heart played a role.