British Columbia

New camping rules in Squamish leave van dwellers in the lurch, drivers say

A camping bylaw passed Tuesday leaves few parking options for people who live in vehicles, they say.

Bylaw passed Tuesday means few parking options for people living in vehicles, they say

Thomasina Pidgeon and her daughter Cedar sit in their van together. Pidgeon runs a company in Squamish, but says she still can't afford to pay rent in the local housing market. She and many others in the district have chosen the van lifestyle. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Van life just became a lot more stressful for the community of people living in their vehicles in Squamish.

On Tuesday evening, district council held a special meeting where it adopted a camping bylaw that vehicle residents say will prevent them from spending the night in their vans within municipal boundaries.

According to district council, the intent of the bylaw is to target recreational visitors from camping overnight in public places. The measure is in response to incidents of garbage and human waste left behind.

Under the rules, homeless residents can set up temporary overnight shelters in some public parks, in accordance with a B.C. Supreme Court ruling. They must not be on trails or near schools.

But vehicles don't count as temporary shelters, and vehicles can't be parked or stored in public places that aren't on Crown land.

Bylaw enforcement officers can issue fines $10,000 and remove tents or vehicles from unauthorized places.

Drivers like Thomasina Pidgeon say the bylaw effectively renders her lifestyle illegal.

"They're going to be looking for us," she told CBC News. "For me, personally, it affects my stress. I don't like the feeling of having to hide again. It's like we don't belong here anymore."

CBC News requested an interview with Squamish Mayor Karen Elliot, who was unavailable.

In an e-mailed statement, she said the municipality's "most pressing need is to manage the impacts of increased seasonal visitation and this new suite of bylaws provides us with the enforcement tools needed in order to do that."

She also note that sleeping overnight in vehicles has been illegal under Squamish's traffic bylaws since 2007.

Pidgeon, who is also the co-director of the Vehicle Residents of Squamish advocacy group, says there are anywhere from 200 to 300 people who live in vehicles in Squamish. While technically illegal, enforcement has been minimal in the past, with the district having a tolerant approach to the community, including offering supports to members during the pandemic.

Pidgeon, pictured in a file photo from 2019, says the new bylaw makes her feel like she doesn't belong anywhere. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Bylaw battles

The recently adopted bylaw has been in motion for years. In 2019, van dwellers petitioned against a proposed bylaw where drivers could be fined as much as $5,000 for informal camping.

Last summer, council considered a bylaw making camping throughout the district illegal, unless in specifically designated camping areas. It was subsequently shelved in favour of a comprehensive plan for a future date.

That plan is the new camping bylaw, which was again amended just weeks ago following more public outcry from both sides of the debate.

The district initially included a 'blue zone' within the municipality where homeless residents would have been allowed to set up shelter.

However, in open letters to council, members from the community raised concerns that the zones would have opened the doors to future tent cities.

In an amendment, blue zones were removed.

"Whether or not we're the problem, we're going to be impacted," said Pidgeon. "There are going to be a lot more community complaints about people sleeping in their vehicles."

She's calling on the local government to move forward on a more inclusive policy that would allow vehicle residents to park legally.

"Instead of outlawing people sleeping in their vehicles, they could just add more toilets and garbage cans for everyone to enjoy," she said.

Mayor Elliot says the district will review the suite of bylaws after the summer to assess what improvements if any need to be made.

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