Yosemite National Park hasn’t held a meeting with soon-to-be displaced homeowners since telling them via letters a month ago that they have to remove or surrender their mobile homes by mid-March.
Yosemite has other plans for the El Portal Trailer Park and is worried about the safety of Park Service-owned power lines there.
The affected residents hoped a National Park Service representative would come to a Thursday gathering with a Mariposa County supervisor, who said she invited NPS to join her in meeting with them during a regular community taco night.
No one showed up as an NPS representative, however, despite it being in El Portal – a community located about a five-minute drive outside Yosemite’s west entrance, populated by people who have to work in Yosemite to live there.
“There was a representative probably there just eating food, watching us like grovel to save our home,” said Luke Harbin, his voice wavering with emotion.
Harbin said one taco night participant, while holding two beers, called him and his mom – who has worked in Yosemite for over 40 years – “concession trash.”
“We have been on the wrong side of the tracks” ever since the trailer park opened in the 1950s, said another longtime resident, Terri Nishimura, about life in the El Portal Trailer Park.
The community hall taco night was in a place known as Old El Portal – dozens of wooden homes near the Merced River alongside Highway 140. Just down the road is the El Portal Trailer Park, also known as the El Portal Trailer Park Village and El Portal Trailer Court. In both places, Yosemite has jurisdiction of the land, but doesn’t own many of the homes that sit upon it.
Unlike their neighbors in Old El Portal, who can sell their homes for hundreds of thousands of dollars, Yosemite has prohibited selling in the trailer park, and is not offering compensation for the mobile homes that residents own, or for related expenses due to their forced removal.
Nishimura described many trailer park residents as Yosemite’s frontline workers.
Nishimura said she is among many residents hurt by comments attributed to Yosemite’s spokesman in a Mariposa Gazette story, in which the trailer park and its residents were described multiple times as “hodgepodge.” She said that’s one good example of “the difference in our treatment – our trailer trash treatment.”
“We’re the people that serve him lunch and make reservations for his VIP visitors,” Nishimura said. “We’re the people that check in his VIP visitors and fix his cars.”
Nishimura loves her three-bedroom mobile home near Yosemite.
“It’s a lovely place,” she said. “We’ve painted and carpeted. It’s nice. It’s not fancy by any stretch, but it’s home and it’s comfortable.”
Many homeowners nearing retirement who live in the trailer park are now facing the possibility of renting a small dorm room in Yosemite Valley with a shared bathroom and kitchen if they want to keep working in the park.
Harbin asked to meet with Yosemite Superintendent Cicely Muldoon, but said he was told by one of her assistants that “she won’t meet with you guys at all.” He was pointed instead to an NPS housing manager, who he managed to get copies of a few documents from, but not all the ones he wanted.
“The superintendent hasn’t had a meeting for us, to explain to us, to our faces, why we have to leave here,” Harbin said. “Why can’t we ask her questions? I just don’t understand that.”
Yosemite superintendent talks with business people, politicians
On Thursday morning, Muldoon had time to make an appearance during a virtual quarterly meeting of Yosemite Gateway Partners, largely attended by tourism leaders and business people from communities in and around Yosemite.
“In December, we had to let the trailer court residents know that the housing agreements were going to come to an end,” Muldoon told the group. “This was really hard and we didn’t reach this decision lightly. The trailer court residents really have long been a part of the community here.
“The hardship that comes with finding new housing, particularly in this area, is not to be taken lightly in any way. But what we found was a really serious threat from the incredibly deteriorated electrical distribution system to the point of we were concerned that the place could burn down or (have) great risk of electrical shock.”
No one raised concerns or asked questions about their coming displacement. Several attendees thanked Muldoon for her partnership, including Supervisor Rosemarie Smallcombe, who met with the trailer park residents one-on-one later that day in El Portal. Smallcombe was accompanied by county and nonprofit staffers who passed out phone numbers to resources, including for Mariposa Heritage House, described as a “drop-in recovery support center.” It wasn’t the kind of help many residents were hoping for.
Muldoon mentioned Yosemite has long been planning to completely close the trailer park, what Yosemite has been working toward by attrition for many years. (NPS estimates there are about 12 residents still living there, “plus or minus.”)
Muldoon didn’t mention, however, that Yosemite is planning to use the trailer park site this year as a construction staging area for various park projects – what Yosemite’s spokesman confirmed – before starting to turn it into a public and administrative-use campground for recreational vehicles in 2024. Homeowners interviewed for this story said they first learned of the 2024 date in an October letter, but weren’t given the deadline to leave in early 2022 until last month.
Just before talking about the trailer park, Muldoon addressed already having to move some equipment and people to El Portal after a large area in Yosemite Valley was recently closed. Short- and long-term solutions for that are still in flux.
“We’ve had two really unexpected closures because of some really serious emerging safety issues,” Muldoon said. “The first one is ‘the fort,’ which is kind of our own Park Service lingo ... The fort is what we refer to as that huge facility in Yosemite Valley that is next to the stables” and is an “amazingly critical operational hub.”
“We have our structural fire equipment in there, many emergency services, the roads equipment, trails, buildings, grounds. That’s where the jail is. ... We’ve been assessing the building for structural and other concerns since late this summer and have found enough issues to cause us really serious concern to the point where we evacuated all the staff and have even changed the locks on the buildings because of an emergent issue around asbestos” and electrical issues, “but the asbestos was the one that really caused us to close the doors on it.”
Smallcombe said she wants to help the trailer park residents with resources, but isn’t recommending anything to the Park Service. Other politicians have gone further, including California Assemblymember Jim Patterson, R-Fresno.
“I share the concern of many Central Valley residents and elected officials about the well-being of the residents being asked to leave the El Portal Trailer Park in Yosemite National Park,” a Jan. 4 letter from Patterson to Muldoon begins.
Patterson cited Fresno Bee reporting about Yosemite terminating lease agreements in the trailer park and giving homeowners there 90 days to vacate, and renters 60 days.
“It is clear the residents of the mobile home park have no legal claim to the land,” Patterson continued. “They are truly at the mercy of the NPS and are struggling to find places to live given such a short window.”
“Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and lack of housing available in the area,” Patterson ended by asking that “an extension be granted to these residents,” and that the Park Service consider providing funds to help with relocation if possible.
Harbin said Friday that Muldoon has not responded to letters from trailer park residents asking for at least more time to leave their longtime homes.
Muldoon did respond to Patterson though – the very next day.
In a letter dated Jan. 5, she stressed that the unfortunate decision was made due to “the badly deteriorated electrical distribution system.” Muldoon told Patterson that Yosemite and the county would help the soon-to-displaced people on a case-to-case basis, but “we haven’t heard directly from any of the residents yet.”
Support for El Portal Trailer Park residents
A change.org petition titled, “Stop the inhumane eviction of our community members at the El Portal Trailer Court,” was created by a former El Portal resident. It had close to 1,700 signatures as of Friday night.
“Most have been working their entire lives, those are their homes,” said the petition’s creator, Dawn Smith. “They are in their 60s and devoted their life to the company. Again, they rightfully bought their homes. I can’t even imagine if my mom was still living there and if she was being displaced out of her home.”
There’s little chance that aging mobile homes there could now be moved – even if residents want to and have the money – due to narrow sections of road in either direction of the trailer park.
Trailer park residents are still working out what to do next. Some have been appealing to a number of officials and politicians, and trying to educate themselves about their legal rights as displaced people.
They’re assembling old notes and documents, including unfulfilled promises from the 1990s that trailer park residents could receive some compensation if ultimately evicted from their mobile homes.
Mariah Thompson, a staff attorney with nonprofit California Rural Legal Assistance who has provided free legal services in many other mobile home parks, said Yosemite National Park needs to “slow down.”
Thompson isn’t representing the El Portal residents, but she has many questions and concerns about what Yosemite is doing to them.
“If the park thinks that it is on sound legal footing in order to do this, I think it would behoove them to explain that, very clearly,” Thompson said. “I mean especially because there seems to be so much miscommunication with residents, inconsistent messaging. Saying that, ‘Oh, it’s all because of the health and safety hazard’ is very different than, ‘We want to use this as a staging ground for these upcoming projects’ ... which is probably why they’re suddenly doubling down on health and safety issues.”
As the clock ticks toward impending evictions, Harbin said, “I just feel like the whole world is against us right now.”