A couple of weeks ago, John Hoopes swapped out his apartment in Fairview for the parking lot of Central Middle School and the cozier digs of a Cruiser RV.
The 45-year-old Hoopes was saddled with old credit card debt and set a goal to pay it off within a year. He decided to forgo monthly $430 rent payments in favor of a camper in which he plans to live until he’s debt-free. And through the Anchorage School District’s summer camper host program, which allows people with RVs to stay on school property, he had a place to stay, at least for the next several months.
His camper is one of dozens that can be spotted at schools across the Anchorage Bowl this summer, tucked away on blacktop or sitting on patches of grass next to gymnasiums.
For more than 10 years, the Anchorage School District has run a camper host program that allows RVs to park at school facilities during the summer. It offers free parking, power, water and holding tank pumping once every one to two weeks.
In exchange, camper hosts are essentially the summer stewards of the schools, keeping an eye out specifically for vandals, but also for general monkey business.
For example, kids love to climb on top of roofs. Any roof.
“I’ve had camper hosts call and say, ‘There’s somebody on top of my camper,’” Andre Camara, the ASD energy manager and the coordinator of the camper host program, said with a chuckle. “They’ll use the ladder on an RV to get up there.”
“Generally it’s just kids being kids,” Camara said of the issues encountered by the camper hosts, noting that one set of hosts broke up a fight last week. “It keeps them at bay.”
Camara’s current task is phasing out the district’s old, inefficient lighting systems. He tacked on the management of the camper host program to his other duties. He’s usually out and about, he said, so it’s a good fit.
The program, which rarely fills to capacity, offers a combined total of 117 camping spots on 75 sites across Anchorage. This summer, about 55 camper hosts have settled in.
The district runs background checks on all the potential camper hosts. For returning hosts, a background check is run every two years. The district also asks for a picture of the RV or camper. .
Some people only stay for a month, the minimum commitment. If friends do the program together, they’re encouraged to set up at different schools so a school isn’t left empty if they travel together.
The program is advertised for “RV travelers,” but some hosts are Anchorage residents adopting a school for financial reasons. Like Hoopes, who is driving a delivery truck while completing classes at University of Alaska Anchorage for his commercial pilot rating.
To decrease the amount of stuff in his camper, Hoopes made a deal with his old roommate to pay roughly the cost of a gym membership to use the shower and the kitchen at his old apartment. He’s hoping to find a spot where he can park his camper once the summer ends..
Up the hill from Hoopes, in the parking lot of Chugach Optional Elementary School, Tim Johnson and his girlfriend, an artist and musician who goes by the name Cage Free, were packing up their 1989 Toyota Odyssey for a weekend of music, kayaking and packrafting in Denali.
The couple’s mobile lifestyle -- they live in the RV year-round -- was featured in a 2013 Alaska Dispatch article.This is their second year living full-time in the RV, outfitted with a wood stove, refrigerator, shower and other amenities, and as well as serving as camper hosts at Chugach Optional for the summer.
The program makes for one less stress for two busy people who would otherwise have to figure out where the RV will end up most nights.
“It helps having a stationary place to park,” Cage said.
Across town, in the Alaska Native Heritage Center’s Hall of Cultures, Sonja Shuravloff-Gisler could be found seated behind a small table selling what she calls her “handiworks” -- handmade earrings, necklaces and bracelets, a colorful array of stones, fossilized animal bones, and silver and bronze wire set in blue and white boxes.
A couple of years ago, the 27-year-old quit a bartending job and started “Handmade Alaska,” her crafting business. This is Shuravloff-Gisler’s first time spending the entire summer selling her crafts at the Heritage Center, and each morning, she puts her wares in her car and drives from the East Anchorage school where her RV is parked for the summer.
“It’s pretty neat” being relatively close to her summer source of income, Shuravloff-Gisler said. She heard about the camper host program on the news while living in Homer.
Shuravloff-Gisler and her fiance are building a house on a plot of land in Homer, but in the meantime, the camper, a Craigslist find, is their home. They’re planning to get married on a Homer beach on Saturday and are trying to save as much money as possible.
Close to downtown, a 1972 Ford Econoline is stationed on the Denali Montessori Elementary playground, near the basketball court. It belongs to Kasey Hughes and her husband Sam, who drove up from Bellingham, Wash., a couple of months ago. Sam, 27, looking for ways to get his commercial driver’s license, settled on driving tour buses for a cruise line.
Instead of paying rent, the two decided to buy the RV. As they were Googling free spots to camp in Anchorage, they stumbled upon the camper host program.
Both work downtown, and the Denali Elementary location, at the intersection of Ninth Avenue and Cordova Street, is a prime spot for them. The couple ride their bikes to work, or they take the bus and jog home. “We’re just really trying to work and save,” Kasey Hughes said.
About a month ago, residents in the nearby South Addition neighborhood complained that the Denali playground had become a magnet for rowdy, loud kids who stayed late into the evenings.
Hughes said she and her husband now know some of the kids by name. She said they haven’t had problems, but they usually give the kids until about 11:30 p.m. before shooing them along.
She called the camper host program “definitely an interesting experience” -- one that involves free Wi-Fi, washing dishes outside and showering at Planet Fitness.
Reach Devin Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4314.