Lana Wiseman lives at the end of a pitted cul-de-sac amid a sea of aging trailers in a large park in Boone County. Whizzing by on a county road, you might fail to notice that her neighborhood, her community, her world, is there.
But Wiseman is determined to be noticed. Showing up on television sometimes earns her some unwanted attention, but she doesn’t really mind if her neighbors go on about it.
She’s a little afraid that her persistent complaints about trailer park conditions might drive her landlord, the park’s owner, over the edge and that she might find herself without a home one day.
But how much is purpose worth?
“I think I’ve found my calling,” Wiseman says as she casts her eyes about the park she calls home.
Wiseman knows there are hundreds like her who aren’t as willing to speak up, who wouldn’t talk to a reporter because they fear eviction. Wiseman speaks for them, not only in the park owner’s office, but also in the state Capitol.
And it’s not always easy to get her message across.
“I get the feeling that (state legislators) look at everyone who lives in a mobile home park as lowlife, trashy people who don’t deserve their attention,” she says. “They dismiss us as troublemakers.
“I would challenge them to come and live in any mobile home park in Boone County for one month and realize the things we do deal with on a daily basis.”
Finding her voice
They’re just everyday things to Wiseman. Roads without lights — roads your car won’t forgive you for driving. Piles of trash, debris and dead appliances sitting in yards.
And then there are the drug dealers, but they pretty much keep to themselves, she says.
“Sometimes it makes for a lot of traffic out here,” she says matter-of-factly. “Eventually the law will catch up with the ones that are doing it.”
Wiseman has heard folks from all over the state complaining about the same problems in their parks, and this year they rallied behind legislation that would define standards for trailer park conditions statewide. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, would allow park residents to have yearlong leases instead of the month-to-month arrangements many have now. It also details the upkeep park owners would be required to perform, including weeding and maintenance of utilities, sewer lines and roads. Likewise, tenants would be required to follow a set of guidelines, including keeping their lots clean and abiding by individual park rules.
Wiseman says the most important component of the bill is probably “forcing the landlords to take responsibility for their own property.” She’s disappointed the bill didn’t make it past the committee stage this year, but that just means she’ll “fight 10 times harder next year.”
“The thing I don’t understand about the owners of the trailer parks is, if they took care of the responsibilities for the property, the trailer parks would be a nicer place to live,” she says. “They would make more money, and we
wouldn’t have all these empty lots. I don’t think they’ll ever actually get out and do something unless the state says ‘You have to.’ ”
And that’s why for the past year and a half, Wiseman has spent 20 to 30 hours a week on volunteer research and advocacy work, much of it with the locally based Grass Roots Organizing. Her latest venture is a trailer park voter-registration drive, which will continue through the summer.
“When I joined GRO, I found my voice,” Wiseman says. Her motivation, she added, is “just realizing that what I have to say and what I think has an impact on my neighbors and on people in the state. And just knowing in my heart that it’s the right thing to do.”
The group’s tenant advocates claimed one victory this legislative session when the Missouri General Assembly approved a bill that will require 120 days’ notice to tenants if a mobile home park is being sold for another use. The bill is designed to give residents more time to move.
“I am so proud of that,” says Wiseman, who plans to be at the Capitol when the governor signs the bill into law.
Steps forward and back
Little did Wiseman, now 41, know when she moved to Missouri 14 years ago that she would find herself in the marble halls of its Capitol. She didn’t even really mean to end up in Missouri.
“I headed out, and my car broke down here,” she says.
After graduating from high school in Colorado, Wiseman tried several paths. She trained as a mechanic in Utah but found the field unwelcoming when she tried to work in Nebraska.
“It was still truly a man’s world,” Wiseman says. “I kind of gave up that dream after a while.”
She hitchhiked around North America for several years during the 1980s, hitting 48 states, Canada and Mexico before returning to Colorado to care for her ailing father. After his death in 1989, she started driving east — and she ended up here.
She moved into a mobile home park about 10 years ago for a common reason.
“It was purely financial,” she says. “It was the cheapest place I could find to live.”
Wiseman worked as a certified nursing assistant in nursing homes for about 10 years, but after all that time she couldn’t stand to see any more of her patients die.
“It finally just gets to you,” she says.
So she took up cabdriver. She loved it and often worked 12-hour days. And she found that living in a mobile home wasn’t so bad.
“The advantage to living in a mobile home: you don’t have a neighbor above you, below you, right next to you,” she says. “It gives you the sense of having your own house. It makes me feel like I have my own little place to make it my own private heaven.”
Wiseman’s home doesn’t always seem heavenly, however, as it’s been showing its age. Her trailer is a 1968 model, a fact that she says prevents her from getting insurance on it. She sometimes gets nervous when the winds start kicking up.
“Right now there are lights in my house I can’t turn on because they’re shorting out,” she says. “The cost to replace all the wiring is almost as much as I’m paying for the trailer itself. You kind of work around the things that you can’t do anything about.”
She’s been thinking she’d like to have a few acres of heaven some day. She bought her current trailer with the inheritance from her mother’s death about four years ago. She thought, “I’m going to buy myself a trailer, get a good job and save money to get out.”
A year later, though, Wiseman suffered a stroke.
“Right now, I’m waiting for my disability to come through, and then I plan on getting out,” she says.
Wiseman has been waiting, appealing to the Social Security Administration and waiting some more for the past three years. She was just denied for disability pay again last month, when the judge cited a lack of detailed information pertaining to her medical case. That came as a surprise to Wiseman, who had provided more information this time after a similar denial in the past.
“I’m having some more tests done and appealing again,” she says.
But appeals take time, and the months ahead pose a formidable challenge.
“I have no clue what I’m going to do to survive for the next year or two,” she says.
A friend sent her money to pay her lot rent — about $160 — this month. Another friend is giving her a loan to cover the next six months.
“Fortunately, I do have a few very good friends,” she says.
Though Wiseman says the left side of her body is still numb much of the time from the stroke, she likes to do arts and crafts. She makes jewelry, pipes and walking sticks that she says have a rustic feel. She might try to sell some of her creations at craft shows or local stores to bring in some money.
The dream of home
Despite the setbacks, Wiseman still hopes to move. She has five siblings scattered around the country, and her sister in Iowa has invited her to move there.
“She wants me to come up to Iowa and help fix their mobile home parks,” Wiseman says. “I’m going to fix the ones here first.”
She’s seen neighbors move — some who grew tired of the vandalism, others who thought conditions would be better in another park. Still others followed the trend of putting mobile homes on their own land, like the neighbors who used to live next door.
“Someday ...” she trails off.
In the meantime, what keeps her going?
“Knowing that some day I’ll be able to come into any trailer park and there won’t be potholes,” she says. “There won’t be trash. The people who live there will be happy to live there.”
But she thinks a lot of those folks have dreams of a different home, just as she does.
“I have a plan in my head for my home that I want to build,” she says. “And there are people I want to take with me when I go.”
“A lot of them would like to move out,” she says. “I think that’s a dream for a lot of people in mobile home parks. Dreams don’t always come true, but it’s good to dream.”