Josiah Ingalls has been called a saint for letting homeless people live on his 10-acre property in rural Texas. Whether his neighbors would agree is another matter.
Last summer, the 43-year-old father and local business owner began allowing people to pitch tents or park RVs on the land he shares with his family and their many sheep and chickens in Cedar Creek, about 45 minutes outside of downtown Austin. Because of the city’s skyrocketing rents—and Texas’ new statewide ban on homeless encampments on public property—the 19 people living at Camp Haven Sanctuary had almost no place else to turn where they wouldn’t run into unaffordable housing costs or trouble with law enforcement. Then came Ingalls.
“This is their home,” Brittany Ellis, who was one of Camp Haven’s first residents, said from a camping chair outside a small garden shed on Ingalls’ property one night in March.
“And they opened it up to us,” emphasized Dawn Howell, a petite 55-year-old with a felony record whom Ellis brought to the camp.
“If it weren’t for that, we would be out there—” another resident began.
“Hiding from the law,” Howell finished.
Ingalls is perhaps the boldest—and most literal—embodiment of the “Yes in My Backyard” philosophy he feels Austin’s metropolitan area desperately needs. And he's largely doing it out of his own pocket. His family’s property has repeatedly been hit with $1,000 electricity bills. Soon, it will also need an RV park–style septic system that’s estimated to cost at least $25,000. Where Ingalls will come up with that kind of money is anyone’s guess. He only recently started allowing residents to contribute to Camp Haven’s many expenses, if they want, but he doesn’t believe someone should make money off this kind of endeavor.
“How much money do we have in the Camp Haven account?” Ellis asked Ingalls one day near the back of his property, between a pond and a smattering of garden sheds.
“You don’t want to know,” Ingalls responded.
“Zero?” Ellis laughed.
“I think we have $200 and something,” Ingalls said. “It’s not much, and it’s never been very much.”
Still, Camp Haven has accomplished a lot with “not much” over the past several months. The residents live in several sheds on the property—all donated. Some are encircled with a white picket fence the residents crafted out of pallets, allowing them to keep their dogs from running around, though an enclosed area also serves as a kennel. Elsewhere on the tree-dotted land, people sleep in tents or campers.
There’s a fully-functioning kitchen structure stocked with food and a garden. Port-a-potties and hand-washing stations can be found on one side of the property, while an enclosed bathroom building that has a shower and a toilet sits at the opposite end. Residents have somewhere to do laundry, too.
“I can remember doing dishes in a warming pan sitting on a five-gallon bucket when I first got here,” Howell said. “Now I got a whole kitchen. I love it.”
Apart from the essentials, Ingalls’ property offers a sense of community: There’s a shed where residents can borrow books or games, and a tent filled with clothing donations and bedding. Official Camp Haven meetings are held inside Ingalls’ home, and everyone living there was recently invited to Ingalls’ birthday party. Ingalls has also worked to arrange mental and general healthcare services since his property is so far outside of town.
“This is never-ending, and it’s difficult,” Ingalls said. “But even though this is the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, it’s also the most fulfilling.”
If anyone was going to create a place like Camp Haven, it was going to be Ingalls. He knows what it means to be unwanted. After telling his family he was gay at 17 years old, he was turned out onto the streets and became homeless for two and a half years in San Antonio. Oftentimes, he stayed behind a shopping center in a refrigerator box that he covered with plastic bags.
The experience was enough to turn Ingalls into a lifetime advocate for the unhoused, and Camp Haven is the greatest test of his convictions. He’s tried to make sure the encampment isn’t too disruptive to his family and the local community: There’s an application process and plenty of rules—no sex offenders, no drugs, and no wandering onto neighbors’ properties. Residents are supposed to chip in and wash dishes, take care of the camp, and make strides toward securing permanent housing.
Even so, Ingalls has shouldered quite a bit of skepticism, if not outright rage, over Camp Haven from people living nearby.
“If we fail, then nothing else is going to happen in this part of America for a long, long time. But if we succeed, the benefit could be monumental.”
Much of the drama has materialized on Nextdoor, a hyperlocal social networking app. Some posts about Camp Haven there became so vitriolic that they were taken down, Ingalls said. A neighbor once threatened to contact Republican Sen. Ted Cruz to shut down Ingalls’ operation, while another proclaimed the surrounding neighborhood would be better off if Ingalls were to die. Primarily, people feared that Camp Haven would bring drug use, theft, and a host of big-city problems to their quiet country town.
As far as Ingalls knows, his neighbors’ concerns haven’t materialized. But if they did, Camp Haven could come crashing down along with Ingalls’ big dream: getting other homeowners to open up their land, too.
“The pressure is really on all the time to make sure that we don’t fail,” Ingalls said. “Because if we fail, then nothing else is going to happen in this part of America for a long, long time. But if we succeed, the benefit could be monumental.”
As the residents of Camp Haven will tell you, Austin was once an affordable city. But like many metropolitan areas across the country’s Sun Belt, it’s now experiencing a huge spike in housing costs. Austin led the 10 metro areas with the fastest-rising rents between February 2021 and February of this year, with an increase of 40 percent, according to the real estate firm Redfin. It’s even beating New York City in that regard.
Texas’ reputation for enacting strict anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ policies also hasn’t been enough to drive big companies away from the state’s capital city. Tesla just moved its headquarters from Palo Alto to Austin and based its manufacturing facility about 20 miles from where Ingalls lives in Cedar Creek. Oracle also decamped for Austin in 2020.
That popularity comes with consequences, though. Low-income renters are being squeezed out of the city’s white-hot housing market, displaced from their neighborhoods, and even being pushed onto the streets. In 2020, 2,506 people were experiencing homelessness in Austin, which still doesn’t even have enough shelter beds to help everyone.
“We’re already living a life of hell, and now you want to make it illegal to live our life of hell?”
Alongside that growing crisis, lawmakers and homeowners are cracking down on the existence of poor people in public spaces. While Austin relaxed restrictions on homeless encampments in 2019, Gov. Greg Abbott seized on the issue as another example of liberalism run amok and pushed back hard.
After political pressure from Abbott, Austin’s residents voted last May to reinstate criminal penalties against homeless people who camp in public. Weeks later, Texas lawmakers voted to ban unapproved homeless encampments everywhere else, subjecting offenders to a potential fine of $500.
“It’s having a huge impact here,” said Matt Mollica, the executive director of the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition in Austin. “It provided no solutions. It was just a punitive measure put in place to continue to traumatize the most vulnerable in our community.”
It’s clear what people at Camp Haven think of the bill. The sanctuary’s indoor kitchen structure has a large orange, blue, and red mural on its side that reads: “Homes not handcuffs, stop the madness.”
But the so-called “madness” isn’t limited to Texas. California, Florida, and New Hampshire have also banned homeless encampments statewide, and so far this year, legislators in other states, including Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, and Oklahoma, have considered similar bans.
While the obvious alternative might be to go to a homeless shelter, more-privileged residents and their businesses can make that difficult too. Facilities for the homeless are often sued into oblivion or protested to the point where they take ages to get off the ground. Plus, homeless people don’t always like the shelters once they are built. They can be paternalistic, unsafe, overcrowded, and unhygienic.
All of that back-and-forth can put homeless people in a difficult spot: If they have no money to move and no available shelter bed to sleep in, they can either rest in public and risk citation, hide, or, in the rare case, find someone like Ingalls. It’s a calculus that they’re sick of having to consider.
“We’re already living a life of hell, and now you want to make it illegal to live our life of hell?” Howell scoffed. “Please, come live out here with me for a week. Just one week. I dare you.”
‘The only safe place for me to be’
People at Camp Haven often describe having to go through a process of “decompressing” after arriving from living under a bridge or in an urban encampment. It can be strange for them to not have to think about their survival day and night.
While they might’ve found friends and taken care of each other during their time outside in Austin, at the camp, they can sleep in late if they want to, wake up together, and listen to the sound of birds chirping. Unencumbered by fears of police taking their stuff, they can walk around and take in the neighboring pastures during the day or head off to work knowing they’ll have a place to go back to that night.
“It’s the only safe place for me to be while I’m trying to get my housing,” Howell said.
The decor of the camp also makes them feel welcome. A sign at the entrance to the property announces the land as a homeless sanctuary while a custom-ordered International Criminal Court flag flying nearby represents Ingalls’ belief that Texas legislators have committed crimes against humanity for persecuting the poor. (As Ingalls recently explained on his Facebook page, “Everyone that believes this country has grown too big for its britches should fly it.”)
Ellis, one of the first residents of the camp, has painted all of the signs at Camp Haven, including one that reads “House the Homeless.” She met Ingalls “a long time ago” when she helped him remodel a house in Austin. Even before she moved into the camp, she was trying to work with him to figure out how he could start allowing homeless people to live on his property.
The 57-year-old Arapaho Native American, who’s quick to either laugh or cry when talking to others, has been homeless on and off for 20 years, ever since she got out of prison for drinking and driving. Earlier in the pandemic, people in Austin’s mutual aid community bought her a phone and got her into a co-op for a year, and she was heavily involved in local efforts to ensure homeless people were well-fed and taken care of during lockdowns and outbreaks.
But when the money for the co-op dried up in June of last year, Ellis decided she’d live on Ingalls’ property alongside any other Camp Haven newcomers. Though people are only supposed to live there for a year, Ellis said she may be offered “a forever home.” Before long, Ellis started recruiting more residents, including Howell, who was living under a bridge in Austin. They’re now dating.
“It’s rewarding—when all of us know how it is out there on the streets—when we can connect with somebody and bring them out and have them here within a couple of days. That’s what does it for me,” said Ellis, who is Two-Spirit and identifies as a woman. “I can be around my friends. They’re better off here than they would be out there.”
And with more residents came more structures, including fenced-in areas, the kitchen building, the donated sheds, a gravity-fed water tower, and more. People at the camp can earn official volunteer titles for their contributions.
Freddie Gieseke, a 33-year-old from Minneapolis, has been living at Camp Haven just since the beginning of February, but he’s already become the “camp lead”; people can come to him with questions about small conflicts—like if someone’s milk goes missing, he said. Gieseke moved to the camp after police impounded the vehicle he was living in after finding marijuana in the car, he said. The volunteer roles help him and other residents feel useful.
Howell is the second “camp lead,” though she has unofficially deemed herself the “dish witch, garden gnome, and the poop lady,” since she cleans up after the camp’s many dogs and has pumped waste out of the port-a-potties.
There’s a camp cook, though he frequently quits, according to residents. Apart from the volunteer work, residents can also get paid $15 an hour for working at Ingalls’ landscaping firm, an amount that Ingalls said he sometimes doesn't make in a day.
Still, the transition to a more “normal” existence, as nice as it is, can be weird. Howell had to be “bamboozled” out of the tent she pitched on Ingalls’ property last summer and into a donated shed.
“I was perfectly happy in my tent,” Howell said. She now acknowledges that the shed is better.
Howell became homeless after she finished five years in prison for beating up her 72-year-old roommate while she was high on drugs, she said. She went on to hook up with a drug-dealer boyfriend and “lost everything” after she was hit by a car. By 2018, she was back in prison for an incident in which she says she drooled on a cop. She said she’d considered biting the officer before she thought better of it, which is why her mouth was open.
Now, Howell isn’t in any position to cause any trouble—she has congestive heart failure and takes a lot of medicine. She’s not using drugs anymore, either. Others on the property also no longer feel the need to use, despite previously being dependent on substances, which both Howell and Ellis described as a “miracle.”
Though she lives at Camp Haven, Howell’s this close to getting into a real place of her own. She’s had a housing voucher for $1,243 for several months, she said, but she can’t find a landlord willing to take the money due to her criminal record. Private property owners frequently deny tenants who’ve committed crimes, which contributes to a higher homelessness rate among formerly incarcerated people.
“I have tried to change everything about me,” Howell sighed. “It’s got me nowhere, baby.”
Jimmie Martin, a 52-year-old veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, is also struggling to find housing. Right now, he’s living in a garden shed with his wife, 22-year-old son, and pets at Camp Haven after being evicted from his trailer in Bastrop County, Texas, in February. As he describes it, a “California lady came in and bought the land from the landowner.”
Martin and his family looked for a new place to rent and stayed in hotels for about three weeks until their money ran out. Then they filled out an application to come to Ingalls’ land.
Martin makes about $1,000 a month through disability benefits, while his wife makes $2,800 a month through her night-shift retail job, he said. (Austin’s average asking rent is about $2,300, according to Redfin.) Martin said he’s been approved for a $150,000 home loan but can’t find a home to buy in the surrounding area in that price range.
“Six years ago, you could buy land and a house for $150,000,” he added.
Martin said used to work in law enforcement, and he’s a big Donald Trump supporter. He even agrees with Texas’ camping ban, though he believes people should be able to live in state parks for free.
In the end, though, Martin also thinks what Ingalls’ is doing is good, even if the landowners nearby are “pretty peeved,” he said. And he wishes people would be more understanding.
“This should be more widespread,” Martin said. “If more people did this, there would be less homeless, because this is a stepping stone. It really is. It gives people time to build and to move up.”
A family affair
Even before Texas Gov. Abbott signed the camping ban into law last year, Ingalls knew it was time to open up his property to homeless people and shut down the paid camping business that had already existed on the land. He wouldn’t be the first: People in Ohio and Utah have also allowed encampments on their land. But building that kind of community hasn’t always gone well. A couple in Morganton, North Carolina, received a violation notice from the city after letting multiple homeless people live on their property.
“It should not be up to individuals to stand up and help protect the rights of people experiencing homelessness against these threats of arrest just for trying to survive on the streets. That should be the duty of the state itself, to make sure everybody’s basic needs are met,“ said Eric Tars, the legal director for the National Homelessness Law Center, which tracks the criminalization of the poor. “But in the absence of that, we are going to see more people taking this kind of direct action.”
Ingalls’ own experience with homelessness still weighs heavy on his mind. He only became housed after meeting his ex-wife, who offered him a place to stay. After their divorce, he jumped around a bit before winding up in Austin. Because his autism made finding stable work difficult for him, Ingalls eventually opened up a landscaping business.
After getting together with his partner, Dan McGowan, nine years ago, Ingalls moved out to Cedar Creek with his legal wife, Janet, and his two daughters. (Ingalls has a nontraditional family and says Janet and McGowan are monogamous to him, though he’s not to either of them.) And McGowan, who works for the state of Texas and holds the deed to the property, was in complete agreement with Ingalls’ far-out idea to create Camp Haven.
“My biggest fear was not the people who would come in who we would help. It was what the authorities would do,” said McGowan, 69. “We’ve had remarkably very little attention from any official sources.”
With legislators’ focus seemingly elsewhere, McGowan’s hope is that the Camp Haven will now be able to get more permanent shelters and publicly share its rules so others can join in if they want.
Those rules, it's worth noting, are ones that Ingalls’ daughters, Heather Ingalls, 11, and Kelly Ingalls, 9, voted on too. They both sit on the camp’s board and described Camp Haven as fun.
“There’s so many birthdays,” Kelly said, “so almost every potluck there’s cake and ice cream.”
Ingalls also said running Camp Haven can be enjoyable. One night he camped with the residents and offered everyone one shot of coconut rum. Another night, the residents hung out around a bonfire, and “Josiah went bonfire crazy,” according to Howell. More recently, residents went swimming in the lake together.
That’s not to say everything at Camp Haven has gone smoothly.
For one, the facility started out with no policies or procedures, and they had to be created one by one. Ingalls has also clashed with other local advocates for not allowing drug use on his property, since that sort of blanket ban could be considered discriminatory. If there’s any drama on the land, Ingalls also has to insert himself into it, meaning he’s always on the clock.
In January, a homeless person man who’d been living at the property for a couple of months and helped build the camp’s kitchen died in a drunk-driving accident. Two residents at Camp Haven, Daniel and Country, had gotten into a fight, and Ingalls came down hard on them due to the camp’s policy against violence. Daniel later decided to go out drinking with the man and Daniel wrecked the car and landed in jail. His passenger later died at the hospital.
“We’ve made mistakes, and we’ve fucked up. But we’re trying to accomplish something that’s really never been done before.”
Ellis and Ingalls still tear up when talking about it, particularly because Ingalls somewhat blames himself, even if no one else at the camp does.
“I feel partially guilty because if I wouldn’t have been so harsh with Daniel and Country that morning, maybe they wouldn’t have gone out drinking,” Ingalls admitted while sitting outside Howell’s shed with a couple other residents. “Maybe it’s an unrealistic thing, but that’s how I feel.”
Everyone there stressed that it wasn’t his fault. But Ingalls pushed back.
“Y’all are here because I opened up the land, which means I am responsible, even though you’re adults,” Ingalls emphasized.
That responsibility for everyone’s welfare is part of what worried the neighbors, though Ingalls has tried to win them over. In September, Ingalls was finally able to host the first open house at Camp Haven and invited outsiders to come to visit.
One neighbor who came to ask a bunch of questions, Tabby Hoffstatter, soon became a dedicated volunteer. She now serves on Camp Haven’s board. (She’s beloved by many of the camp’s residents and called “Tabby Cat.” A sign leading into the camp reads “WE LOVE YOU TABBY.”)
“They were afraid of drugs, and violence, and people breaking into homes, and I just knew that was wrong,” Hoffstatter said of her neighbors. “The moment I walked here, came in, I believed in what Josiah was doing.”
She described herself as a friend to people at the camp and helps by doing paperwork, managing policies, and creating forms. A couple other neighbors support the camp too, she said.
Ingalls hopes that support will grow—and he wants people to replicate Camp Haven’s model, even just by allowing one or two tents in their backyard. One group already came out to take a look at Camp Haven, since they wanted to buy acreage for a largely LGBTQ community, according to Ellis.
And Ingalls believes he can win in some areas. The most recent Nextdoor post about Camp Haven has not yet been deleted over abusive comments, for example, which he took as an improvement.
“This facility was never the plan. We’ve made mistakes, and we’ve fucked up,” Ingalls said. “But we’re trying to accomplish something that’s really never been done before.”
Editor’s note: The name of the man at the camp who died has been removed.
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.