'I don't feel safe': Squamish van dwellers feel targeted as their numbers rise

The second time a corrosive substance was poured over Jenn Carter's camper van — which is also her home — she began to feel targeted.

B.C. district popular with climbers looks to increase access to van parking and camping

Squamish, B.C., is seeing an increase in the number of people living out of their vehicles. The rise is due in part to rock climbers who are drawn to the Stawamus Chief. (Nicole Gurney)

The first time Jenn Carter's camper van was vandalized in Squamish, B.C., she brushed it off as a random act.

The second time a corrosive substance was poured over her vehicle in as many weeks, she began to feel targeted.

"I'm trying to pay off student loans right now. I live out of my van because I'm trying to put money towards that," said Carter, who has been living out of her van in and near Squamish on and off since last year.

The vandalism caused thousands of dollars of damage and her van has been written off by insurer ICBC because the cost of fixing it outweighs the vehicle's value.

RCMP are investigating the vandalism as an isolated event and said they have not noted a trend of attacks against camper vans recently.

'The paint was all bubbling, anything plastic basically melting, the light fixtures — so my brake light — was all melted and all the paint is basically stripped off,' says Jenn Carter about damage to her van. (Jenn Carter)

Municipal plans

But while attacks may not be increasing, the mayor of Squamish says there has been a discernible increase in recent years in the number of people living out of their vehicles.

"The climbing culture and people coming to Squamish to climb and living in their van for several months to climb is not a new thing for Squamish, but it's certainly increased over the last couple years," said Mayor Patricia Heintzman.

"It's something that we are obviously cognizant of. We're trying to figure out ways of managing it correctly."

She said Squamish is working on plans to create more designated, low-cost or free areas for people to park and camp.

"We want to make sure that there isn't friction between neighbourhoods and people camping."

The district has had meetings within the past month with various local organizations to address the issue.

Christina Methera, a Squamish resident who has spent more time living in a vehicle than in a house over the past six years, says the recent acts of vandalism point to a greater issue of attitudes toward van dwellers.

"It does spark the conversation again about van life," she said.

"When you live in a vehicle, people treat you like you're some sort of lower class individual."

Christina Methera has lived in vehicle more often than a house over the past six years and says she encounters negative reactions from people sometimes. Recently, she was rearranging her vehicle in a parking lot in Squamish and 'people started to take wider steps around me and tell their kids not to come talk to me,' she says. (Christina Methera )

Methera's camper vehicle was vandalized with spray paint more than a year ago while parked on a residential street in front of an apartment building where she was staying.

And not long before that, one of her friends had the word "squat" spray painted on his van.

"[Squamish] is outdoors oriented, but there is a really big class divide here too," she said.

Visitors, long-term van dwellers and residents

In Squamish, there are two main groups of people living out of their vehicles: long-term residents and visitors who come for the summer to camp and climb, according to the Squamish Access Society, a non-profit group that works on behalf of climbers. 

"The two types of people get conflated, I think, in residents' minds this time of year," said Toby Foord-Kelcey, president of the Squamish Access Society. 

Those who stay long-term tend to fly under the radar, he said, while newcomers don't always know the legalities and local sensitivities of the areas where they are staying.  

"Often people have an expectation that they will park up somewhere quietly for free," he said.

"In the last few years, the numbers have become very large and one or two locations that are close to residential areas  have become very popular."

Foord-Kelcey has heard concerns from residents about the environmental impact of an influx of campers and complaints about littering, defecating in the woods and starting fires despite bans.

The issue is not a new one, he said, but is growing as the number of people living in vehicles increases. He says it needs to be addressed at a government level.

The Mamquam​ River Service Road, near the Stawamus Chief, is one of the popular areas for vans to park and is near the residential Valleycliffe neighbourhood. 

For Matthew Waring, originally from the U.K who lived in a van in Squamish for four summers, it comes down to respect and education.

"A big portion of the community in Squamish is quite accepting of this free and easy, outdoor lifestyle that van dwellers try to live," Waring said.  

"The problems really occur just occur from a practical sense — where can they stay, parking, the big questions of how much are they impacting the environment."

Jenn Carter's van was vandalized twice while parked in a residential area in Squamish, B.C. (Submitted by Jenn Carter)

On the nights Carter's van was vandalized — first in late June and then in mid-July — she'd been staying at her boyfriend's house and left it parked in his residential area.  

The nights she sleeps in her van, Carter parks in more remote locations outside the city.

"I don't feel safe," she said. "To be honest, I don't even want to park my van downtown at all."

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