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Cape resident Melissa Sleeper bought a camper when her rent went up. Now she has to move.

By Susan Vaughn, Special to Cape Cod Times

MARSTONS MILLS — Melissa Sleeper has been living in her camper on a friend’s property in Marstons Mills since November.

After five years, she had to leave her two-bedroom apartment in Falmouth when her landlord raised the rent beyond what she could afford. Buying a used camper for housing seemed like a good idea, she said.

Now, though, she's been told she has to move the camper. A Barnstable town ordinance does not allow occupied campers on private property for more than 20 days a year. Her boyfriend, her registered service dog and a cat also live with her.

“I knew nothing about camping. I have never been camping,” she said during a recent interview inside the camper.

Melissa Sleeper

The Homeless Prevention Council in Orleans does not keep statistics on the number of people living in campers when they lose their permanent homes. But it happens, said Hadley Luddy, the nonprofit's CEO.

"We've seen situations of people staying in campers. It's not unusual," Luddy said. "It's another example of the seriousness of the housing crisis."

The council covers Lower Cape towns, from Harwich to Provincetown.

There used to be more people living in winter rentals who would stay in campgrounds during the summer, but now that is disappearing giving way to highly-priced winter rentals, Luddy said.

"We've seen situations of people staying in campers. It's not unusual," Luddy said. "It's another example of the seriousness of the housing crisis."

Workers age 25 to 54 make up the largest group affected by the housing crisis and who do not have permanent homes, Luddy said. She urged people in that situation to contact the council or Housing Assistance Corporation in Hyannis.

"We see people wait too long to get help," she said.

Hard to find a permanent home on Cape Cod

In Sleeper’s case, she said her situation is not due to her lack of effort in finding a permanent home.

Sleeper, 42, works 10 hours a day, six days a week, as a pizza restaurant manager, but she said she could not find an apartment for under $3,000 a month. Having pets also limited her options.

“We couldn’t find a place that would take animals,” she said.

She looked into parking the camper at a state or private campground but found that the stay is often limited to two weeks, and the campgrounds aren't year-round.

Towns, she said, should not allow local people to become homeless.

“This is our only option,” she said of parking her camper on private property.

The camper is a one-bedroom, 15-year-old Bristol Bay parked at the rear of a large private lot with a single-family house. It must be attached to a vehicle to move. The camper is mainly hidden from the street by a high fence except at the entrance road.

A co-owner of the property, when contacted by the Times by phone, declined to comment.

Towns should not allow local people to become homeless. - Melissa Sleeper

A rent increase that was 'hard to budget'

The rent Sleeper paid on her last place, the apartment in Falmouth, started at $1,700 a month, then went to $1,750 and then jumped to $1,950.

"The $1,950 was hard to budget," she said.

She expressed gratitude to her boss who loaned her the money to buy the camper.

The camper cost $12,000, plus about $3,000 for renovations, such as redoing the floors, removing a wall and installing a refrigerator, Sleeper said. The camper has a kitchen, running water and a bathroom with a shower. The wastewater tanks get pumped out at least every two weeks or less, she said.


Camper violation notice issued by Barnstable officials

Kevin O'Neil, the town building inspector who is responsible for Marstons Mills, said he became aware of the occupied camper when he visited the property on a separate complaint.

O’Neil notified the property owner of the camper violation. The property owner is the one held responsible, he said.

Sleeper said she was not contacted by any town inspectors.

The town has not fined the owner for the camper violation because there is an allowed appeal period, O’Neil said. For an occupied camper violation, the property owner can appeal to the town clerk within 30 days or to the Building Code Appeals Board within 45 days, he said, adding the situation could eventually end up in court.

Unoccupied campers parked on the owner’s private property are allowed without a permit, O'Neil said.

Town building inspectors in Barnstable often encounter people living in campers.

“It’s hard to control,” O'Neil said, adding when the inspectors spot them, they issue a notice to vacate.

Application for a permit

On Thursday, Sleeper applied for a permit for her camper and paid $129 in fees, based on a receipt reviewed by the Times.

O'Neil said Friday her application for the permit was received and has to be signed off by the town building commissioner. Any action could take 30 days to issue a permit or deny it, he said. But Sleeper did the right thing by filing for a permit, which could allow her more time.

Her options, he said, are to vacate the camper, remove it from the property or file for a permit.

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