As more people use RVs as homes, should cities find a place for them?
Elected officials and advocates for the poor have mixed opinions on the idea
Graham Pruss is familiar with the trials and tribulations of living out of an RV.
As part of his research for his anthropology PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle, Pruss bought and lived in an RV for five months.
Within the first 12 hours of doing so, he says, police issued him tickets and former neighbours spurned him.
"That was really startling," he said. "I didn't expect that level of isolation and unwelcomeness."
Some people stared at him or told him to get lost. Others shook his RV in the middle of the night.
Entry point to services
As Metro Vancouver's housing crisis continues, more people are living in RVs. But they face a hostile environment.
Some B.C. cities have recently banned people from sleeping in large vehicles overnight. And in the Lower Mainland, the few RV parks that remain have years-long wait lists.
Given the increasing need for RV dwellers to find a legal place to park, should cities step up and provide space for them?
Pruss thinks so.
For two years he participated in Seattle's Road to Housing program, which provided space for 12 RVs in church parking lots across the city.
Pruss estimates that a parking space cost $15,000 per year to rent, which he says is cheaper than building and maintaining emergency shelters.
People living in RVs is an inevitable reality, Pruss says, and cities should do more to support them by including them as part of their existing emergency shelter systems so people can be connected to social services like social workers and mental health support.
"It's not just about providing a space for the vehicle," he said. "It's actually more about providing an entry point for that person into the system of care that can help them."
But officials and advocates for the poor have mixed opinions on the idea.
Many agree some RV dwellers don't consider themselves to be homeless and don't need a high level of social support.
For those who do, some advocates say that providing them with a safe space would be beneficial. Others warn it would just pour limited resources into another stop-gap housing measure instead of focusing on building permanent homes.
Mike Musgrove, executive director of the Surrey Urban Mission, often hears from people who live in their RVs.
Musgrove thinks offering them a safe space to live would be "incredible."
Supporting people who live in RVs isn't a permanent housing solution, Musgrove warns. But he thinks anything that can relieve some of the burden on the homeless can be helpful.
"I love the idea of some of the creative solutions to what we're experiencing right now," he said.
Risk of normalization
Others have more mixed feelings about the idea.
Jill Atkey, CEO of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, says bylaws that restrict RVs from city streets amount to a "criminalization of poverty."
Atkey agrees there's an increasing need for legitimate spaces for RV dwellers. However, she worries that providing more short-term housing solutions could alleviate the pressure on governments to build affordable homes.
"These sort of temporary or crisis-type responses sometimes then become normalized," she said.
Atkey points out that food banks started in the '70s as an emergency response to hunger but are still used today by an ever-growing number of people.
Dealing with the root of the problem
Vancouver Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung is more firm on the subject — she thinks cities should keep their focus on long-term solutions.
"The problem that needs to be addressed is not looking at stop-gap measures," Kirby-Yung said. "We need to deal with the root of the problem, which is that we don't have enough housing."
The City of Vancouver's director of homelessness services, Celine Mauboules, says outreach workers do connect with people living in RVs when responding to neighbourhood complaints.
"Ultimately, when our outreach team is connecting with them, it's to get them into housing," she said. "It's not our policy to penalize people just because they're sleeping in their cars."
But researcher Pruss says affordable housing takes years to be built, and RVs provide an immediate home for those who can't afford to live elsewhere.
He says not providing RV dwellers with a safe space in the meantime would be like not providing shelter beds until permanent homes are built.
"There's not a one-size-fits-all, silver-bullet solution to [the housing crisis]," he said.
- A previous version of this story said it cost $40,000 per year for a shelter bed in Seattle. In fact, it cost $20,000 per year to maintain a shelter bed with access to support services.Nov 23, 2019 12:15 PM PT