In posh Jackson Hole resort area, workers priced out of housing live in cars, national forest
In some cases, officials say some Jackson Hole businesses gave their staff unrealistic expectations about housing when trying to lure them to Jackson Hole, then pushed them toward the national forest when they couldn’t find anything.
JACKSON, Wyo. — A soupy mix of beans, rice and quinoa down the hatch, Erica Robertson prepared to get cozy at one of her favorite places to call home: Curtis Canyon.
The 23-year-old semi-itinerant denizen of Wyoming’s pricey Jackson Hole resort area sleeps in the twin bed built into the back of her Toyota RAV4, which she had parked in a camping area 1,200 feet over the valley floor, with sweeping views of Jackson Hole and the Tetons that have drawn car campers up the rock-strewn, switchbacked road for generations.
As a temporary resident, Robertson sees another perk to holing up for the night at Curtis Canyon.
“I can watch Netflix up here,” she says. “I’ve got unlimited data.”
In her 20s and stringing together odd jobs and living for now off her savings, Robertson has chosen a different sort of homeless life: She’s living out of her car. She’s been doing tht since graduating from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., last year with a degree in molecular and cellular biology. It’s her plan until winter makes car life untenable.
“If I could find housing, I probably would have done that,” Robertson says. “But it’s just so hard I didn’t really even feel the need to try.”
Calling the forest and town of Jackson’s streets home hardly puts her in a unique position in a remote, mountain valley where there’s an acute lack of housing and rent has skyrocketed.
Based on reports Bridger-Teton officials receive of people overstaying five- and 14-day camping limits, an estimated 300 to 500 people are living in the 3.4-million-acre national forest that wraps around three sides of Jackson Hole.
“People staying in one spot all summer is not a problem just in the Jackson area,” Bridger-Teton wilderness and recreation manager Linda Merigliano says. “It’s an issue in many of the other popular corridors, like the Greys River and Green River and drainages on the Big Piney District, too.”
Residency and “nonrecreational camping” are “very clearly” increasing, Bridger-Teton patroller and fire prevention specialist Lesley Williams-Gomez says.
Robertson says she respects the five-day stay limit in Curtis Canyon, which wasn’t enforced with vigor until this summer. The change took her by surprise, but she’s adjusted by staying in friends’ driveways and other in-town haunts instead.
Not everyone is as apt to heed those regulations. Full-time volunteer camping “ambassadors” are now posted for the summer at Curtis Canyon, Shadow Mountain and along the web of forest roads leading into the foothills near Toppings Lake. Their presence has helped limit people living in those areas, which have the most direct Teton range views.
“Unfortunately, the concerns are migrating to a new place,” Williams-Gomez says. “They’re going somewhere else, where there isn’t an ambassador.”
Illegal camping has especially sprung up farther south, in places like Fall Creek and Mosquito Creek roads. Williams-Gomez has heard “heartbreaking” stories that have channeled her frustrations away from the squatters and toward some Jackson Hole businesses that gave their staffs unrealistic expectations about housing when trying to lure them to Jackson Hole, then pushed them toward the national forest when they couldn’t find anything.
“We can’t just use the national forest as the bedroom for employers to house their staff,” Merigliano says.
Staff tied to one luxury Teton Village hotel outfitted a Fall Creek Road-area site with couches in anticipation of settling in for the summer but were hit with a raft of citations for litter, food storage and fire violations after someone tipped off foresters, according to Merigliano.
The environmental consequence of forest residency comes in the form of human feces littering the landscape, vegetation and grasses that are worn away and burnable wood that being depleted when campfires are allowed.
There are consequences for Jackson Hole’s human inhabitants, too, among them few places for locals to camp when all the spots have been claimed by the record-smashing crush of tourists and people who camp to live.
“Our natural resources are suffering, but it’s also locals who want to go up Curtis Canyon with their family and run around without seeing toilet paper,” Williams-Gomez says.
Living out of a car on the national forest and in other public places is predictably tiring at times.
“It’ exhausting worrying about where you’re going to sleep all the time,” Robertson says. “I’ve had some cold nights. Last Sept. 7, it snowed. It was, like, 10 degrees, and I didn’t have a proper sleeping bag.”
Still, she extols the benefits of being homeless in Jackson Hole.
“I think more people should try living in their cars,” Robertson says. “It’s very liberating.”