Jason Layton, the caretaker of the Thane Public Campground, knows squat.
Not only has he made a life of living wherever his camper lands and calling it home, but he has turned it into an entrepreneurial endeavor and an exercise in humanity.
Faced with homelessness more than once since landing in Juneau, Layton said he had to squat- or take up residence on public or private property without the owner's permission - in order to stay in the place he loved.
However, his hardworking nature and a willingness to help others facing homelessness earned him a job as caretaker for the public campground about 3 miles from downtown on Thane Road.
The campground is not just for the homeless, but for independent travelers and people new to town as well.
In the two years under Layton's management, the once barren property has a phone line, removable pavilions to provide cover from the rain, new access trails, an enormous bladder of fresh water, and wiring for electricity.
"I just try to think of what they might need to make them as comfortable as possible and figure out the best way to get it for them," said Layton.
"One of my biggest fears is not having a place to live. I just have a soft spot for the homeless because I've almost been there so many times before and two steps away from it at any given time.
"People don't know what it's like to not know where you're going to be or to not have all your stuff in one place. ... It's scary. It's really scary."
The 30-year-old, originally from Palmer, said he left Alaska to live with his aunt and uncle in Boulder, Colo., for most of his teen years. By 1994, he said he needed to return to his Alaska roots. He worked as a rafting guide and on the movie "Limbo," which was filmed in Juneau.
Layton said he was out of work by 1999 and, after a split with a girlfriend, found himself the proud owner of a pink-colored travel-trailer and all the headaches that went with it.
"There was no place to put it," he said. "I just didn't have the money at the time to park it anywhere, but I had no place else to live either. So I just kind of started squatting."
Of all the open spaces to park his trailer, Layton happened to pick a plot of land near AJT Mining owned by Bill Corbus, president and general manager of Alaska Electric Light and Power Co.
Layton said Corbus was aware he was there, aware he was squatting and wasn't pleased.
"He would come out there and tell me I had to start looking for another place to go," Layton said. "I just stayed, kind of hoping he wouldn't do anything and because I didn't know where to go. Then he'd say, 'OK, Jason, you have until Monday, and then you have to go or I'll have your trailer towed.' But Monday would come and go and nothing would happen. Then he came by and said, 'Be in my office next Monday.' "
Layton said he thought for sure Corbus would make him leave this time. Instead, when Layton arrived at Corbus' office, Corbus just slid a key across his desk.
He offered him a temporary caretaking position at the mine in exchange for a place to park his trailer.
Corbus told the Empire that he admired Layton's moxie and determination. He also said that later, after working with Layton, he saw a hard-worker who deserved a chance.
By spring 2000, when the caretaking job was to end, Layton said his homeless panic came back with a vengeance. But one day, as drove past the Thane Campground, he had an idea. He found out the land also was owned by Corbus, and the campground was operated by St. Vincent De Paul with partial funding from the city.
The idea for the campground was born of a growing problem in the mid- to late '90s with homeless people illegally camping year-round in the woods on public as well as private land, said Dan Austin, director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which offers services to the homeless.
"There were people who got hurt, or would set up a campsite and accidentally burn things, and people who got sick and nobody was there to notice," Austin said. "This was a way for low-income people to come in out of the cold and have a supervised place to stay."
Layton said that in 2000 St. Vincent's was paying a manager nearly $1,200 a month to keep up the property.
"I just said I'd do it for free," Layton said. "I kind of talked my way into it by telling them my ideas and how much money they would be saving if they let me stay on the property and run the grounds.
"It really helps out everybody," said Layton, who earns money as a carpenter and in other seasonal jobs. "Do you really think land owners want someone squatting in their backyard or sleeping in the streets? Some squatters are friggin' messy. Granted I squat - but I try to have a little more class and style."
Austin said Layton "is part of our family at St. Vincent's. He's just a big-hearted individual and genuinely wants to help people."
Layton, who is not paid to manage the property, said his drive to help the homeless was born of a need he knows only too well.
"I'm not some drug-addict freak squatter just because I live the way I do, and I think that's the way people see the homeless," he said. "What people have to realize is that no matter who you are, what you do, whether you're 22 or 42, we're all only steps away from being there ourselves.
"I've been at the other end of things. ... But money's just not everything to me. I wanted something more. I wanted something to share with other people - I mean to genuinely share. Once you know what you want, you got to decide and run with it. ... Live simply. Does that answer it?"
Melanie Plenda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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