British Columbia

Fed up with being unable to find a home, this B.C. man built a houseboat from recycling bins and road signs

After eight years of living in tents, a car, and homemade structures in B.C. and Alberta — and over a year on the B.C. Housing waiting list for shelter — Philip Hathaway and his wife took to the sea on a boat he built himself.

Philip Hathaway built vessel for him and his wife after long, ongoing wait for emergency housing

Philip Hathaway and his wife live on a boat he built himself after they were unable to find a space in shelters or supportive housing on Vancouver Island. (Philip Hathaway)

After eight years of living in tents, a car, and homemade structures in B.C. and Alberta — and over a year on the B.C. Housing waiting list for shelter — Philip Hathaway and his wife took to the sea.

"I said, you know what? They don't want us in the parks, we have nowhere to live ... I'm building a boat," Hathaway, 53, said.

Since June 2021, the couple has lived on a boat constructed by Hathaway, with a base of blue recycling bins bolted together and filled with plastic bottles to keep it afloat, covered with a layer of old highway signs.

He first set up a two-person tent on top of the structure for him and his wife Sonja to live in, but has since replaced it with a more durable plywood A-frame hut.

He built the boat, which he named The Blue Dream, in Goldstream Provincial Park near Langford, B.C., a suburb of Victoria. He then floated it down the Goldstream River to the Saanich Inlet and from there piloted the boat up Vancouver Island's east coast to Campbell River — a journey of around 250 kilometres — with a five-horsepower engine.

The boat came as a last resort for the Hathaways, who felt they had exhausted all legal options to find shelter.

Hathaway says he filled out an emergency housing application in April 2020, but was told months later that he had to apply again as the paperwork had been lost.

He says he and his wife spent the next year living in their car. Their car ended up being impounded seven times, after which point they gave up trying to reclaim it and lived instead in a tent on the shore of James Bay in Victoria.

All that time, they waited for a call telling them a shelter spot had opened up — but Hathaway says it never came.

Sonja, 39, is now pregnant, making their search for permanent housing more urgent.

'Housing demand far exceeds availability'

The couple are not alone in their struggle to find affordable housing on Vancouver Island.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reported in February that Greater Victoria's vacancy rate is one per cent, down from 2.2 per cent in 2020. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Greater Victoria was $2,098 last month, according to a report by rentals.ca.

"Housing demand far exceeds availability across the province, including in the Greater Victoria area," B.C. Housing said in a statement to CBC News.

The provincial housing agency says their records for Hathaway's application begin in March 2022, adding that his earlier request might have been directly to a Victoria nonprofit housing provider.

"It is difficult for us to predict the length of time Mr. Hathaway and his wife will wait for housing," the statement said.

With Hathaway's wife now pregnant, the couple's search for a permanent home has become more urgent. (Philip Hathaway)

Hathaway says he has been a homeowner twice in his life. He inherited a property that was sold and split between his siblings, and later on bought a house in Nanaimo, B.C., with his first wife that was sold during their divorce.

After that, he says it was difficult to regain the financial security he once had.

Stigma, fear of theft

Hathaway says living on the boat has allowed him and his wife to explore the beauty of Vancouver Island's coastline.

He says they ended up basing themselves in the Campbell River estuary after discovering it gave them relative privacy from authorities and potential thieves. 

But he said they've also been met with stigma from communities they've docked in, or are treated like a spectacle by tourists who don't seem to grasp the seriousness of their situation.

"I built this boat out of survival," Hathaway said. "No man and wife should have to do that to find a safe place to live."

While they have relative freedom on the boat, it's also isolating, Hathaway says.

The couple don't leave their boat much due to fear of theft. From where they've docked their boat in the Campbell River estuary it takes 2½ hours to walk into town, and for the entire journey Hathaway can't shake the fear his boat might not be there when he returns.

For this reason, they wash their clothes on the boat and generally only leave to pick up food from the local food bank or for Sonja's prenatal appointments.

"Every day it's a constant struggle to get water, just to get a shower," Hathaway said.

Even if B.C. Housing offered them a place to stay off Island, they'd take it, he says.

Hathaway isn't hoping to get more attention focused on his case, but rather the issue of affordable housing at large.

"It's been decades of this, and it's going to take decades to fix. But in the meantime, there need to be solutions people can utilize so they can actually have some semblance of a life," he said.

A home to him is a legal place for his baby to run around. In the absence of that, he plans to keep expanding his boat.

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