British Columbia

Car-dwellers rising: life on the curb of Canada's most expensive city

There’s a growing number of homeless people living in their vehicles in British Columbia — about 18 were found in the Vancouver homeless count — but police and outreach workers say the real tally across the Lower Mainland is higher — and rising.

'Something happened and now all they have left is their car,' says outreach worker

A lit up camper van at Spanish Banks beach in Vancouver, B.C. where wheeled homes often rest at night, against the backdrop of the twinkling North Shore city lights. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Leanne Daw got used to watching the van-dwellers roll up behind the East Vancouver warehouse where she worked.

"It was pretty bad. They used our dumpsters and one time there was a drug lab in one of the trucks," said Daw.

Her job has since moved, but now there are more vans there than ever.

On one single day last week a Vancouver Police officer found 18 recreational vehicles parked illegally on Vernon Drive in East Vancouver.

There is no official tally of how many people live in their vehicles in Metro Vancouver, but police and social workers say the phenomenon is on the rise, as are complaints from homeowners about illegal parking.

But in Canada's most expensive city, there's no overall policy on how to handle people with no home but their car.

Everything lost, but the car

As homelessness has risen — up 30 per cent  in Metro Vancouver since 2014 — so, it appears, has the number of car dwellers.

The last Metro Vancouver homeless count, saw 58 people living in their cars across the region, with 18 in Vancouver proper, but that's a "vast underestimation," said Peer-Daniel Krause who managed the 2017 homeless count for B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA).

Other housing outreach workers agreed.

This year marked the first time the homeless count tallied people living in vehicles.

"There's a rise in people sleeping in vans and under bridges," Krause said.

Some are economic refugees opting to car camp to cope with the lack of affordable housing, say outreach workers.

"They are people who at one point, perhaps not in the very distant past, had their own place. They could afford a car," said Ethel Whitty, Carnegie Centre director, overseeing homelessness services for Vancouver.

Kim O'Connell is a retiree who recently decided the R.V. life would be a good way to spend his golden years. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Something happened and now all they have left is their car," Whitty said.

"People are very, very attached to the car when it's the only thing they've got between them and the street."

No crack down

City staff are loath to crack down on car-dwelling in a city where the average one-bedroom apartment costs more than $1,800 a month.

"The city is aware [of] and sympathetic to the current housing crisis, and looking for effective and empathetic solutions to helping residents to find long-term housing solutions," said City of Vancouver spokesman Jag Sandhu in an email.

Even if the city's plan to build 600 modular homes by year-end delivers, some people prefer their mobile home.

In previous interviews with CBC, van-dwellers said they prefer the safety and freedom of life on their own wheels — more than couch-surfing or homeless shelters.

And Whitty says many people try to hide the fact they live in a car, to avoid stigma.

No parking

Long-term parkers on are not always welcomed on city streets by local homeowners who fear thefts, garbage and filth, due to lack of sewer or water hookups.

"Inappropriate parking is the biggest complaint," said Whitty.

There are three-hour time limits in most of residential Vancouver, and tickets can cost $40-$100. An impound can top $200.

Bylaw officers chalk tires to gauge how long the vehicle has been parked, and also ticket, but try to tow only as a last resort, says Sandhu.

A camper van parked in Vancouver's West Point Grey neighbourhood. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

There is no overall city plan or policy to curb car dwelling in Vancouver, despite complaints.

"Some of our citizens are getting frustrated," said Vancouver Police Const. Jason Doucette.

"Some of the trash, garbage and unfortunately some of the human waste are ending up on the streets. Local residents are being left to deal with this."

But this issue is exponentially worse south of the border.

Thousands of car-dwellers in U.S.

In American cities it's become an explosive debate — with thousands now living four-wheeled.

Seattle council members are considering a recent ordinance to loosen parking rules for people living in their vehicles.

A homeless 2016 count revealed 900 people — about 40 per cent of unsheltered people — were living in cars in Seattle, said city councillor Mike O'Brien.

Vancouver musician Elliot C. Way moved into his custom 'boogie van' after he says he was 'renovicted' from his East Vancouver home. He's since found a place to rent in Langley, B.C. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

In February, Los Angeles cracked down on the city's estimated 7,000 car-dwellers, banning them from overnight street parking in most of the city.

A 2016 survey called No Safe Place by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in the U.S. showed that 40 per cent of 187 cities have adopted a vehicle dwelling ban.

But so far there's no push for a ban here.

Vancouver's plan

Vancouver is looking to Seattle for possible "empathetic" solutions, given the housing crisis, and has no plan to curb in-car living with ticket blitzes or focused campaigns.

"We are not intervening and saying you cannot live in an RV. If they can find a way to find a place to have their vehicle without it being impounded then they have a right to do that," said Whitty.

So for now, despite the city's reputation for expensive housing prices, van life is possible as long as there is money to put gas in the tank.

One of several occupied vans parked in Vancouver's West Point Grey neighbourhood. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)


Yvette Brend

CBC journalist

Yvette Brend works in Vancouver on all CBC platforms. Her investigative work has spanned floods, fires, cryptocurrency deaths, police shootings and infection control in hospitals. “My husband came home a stranger,” an intimate look at PTSD, won CBC's first Jack Webster City Mike Award (2017). Got a tip?