British Columbia·Feature

'Well, you gotta have a home': Inside the private lives of van dwellers

What drives people to uproot their lives and live out of a vehicle?

'Not everyone who lives in a shag-van with a small little bubble window is, in any regard, a predator'

Maurice Bilovus, 67, has been living in a vehicle every summer for the past six years. During the winter, he escapes to Mexico where he says the rents are affordable. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

A bearded, white-haired man in his late sixties puffs on a cigarette, blowing the smoke out the open driver's side window of his red Chevrolet semi-camperized van.

Maurice Bilovus is parked at Vancouver's Spanish Banks, the front of the van facing the beach. Cyclists and joggers pass by and in the distance, English Bay is littered with freighters. Bilovus seems to be just enjoying the view.

Behind the van's curtains and tinted windows, there's a bench seat being used as a bed. The rest of the van is filled with luggage, boxes, snacks, and an unopened piece of aged cheddar cheese.

Maurice Bilovus lives a simple life out of his Chevrolet van, with no running water, stove, or toilet. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Well, you gotta have a home," he said. "I'm like a homeless person, but I've got a little home and there's a lot of homeless people around. Every year, there's more. It's not only me, there's a lot of people who do the same thing."

Bilovus has been living in a vehicle for six years, though he spends half of each year in Mexico, where the winters are warm and the rent is much cheaper than in Vancouver.

"On a $1,400 pension and $1,200 for an apartment, what the hell is left after that? You know ... it's too expensive for me to live here."

Bilovus, a calm, friendly man, struggles with a swollen foot. His van isn't outfitted with a stove and he says he often gets by on inexpensive McDonald's breakfasts.

He has a few favourite spots around the beach where he likes to park for the night. Occasionally, he hits the road or spends a week staying with friends an hour away in Maple Ridge. 

"It's nice — they're old friends and they say, 'Hey, why don't you drop over for a few days, or something.' It's very heartwarming," said Bilovus, who doesn't have any family.

Elliot C. Way, a Vancouver musician who fronts a revival rock and roll band and DJs under the name DJ Dirty Bird, also relies on friends to make van dwelling a viable lifestyle.

Vancouver musician Elliot C. Way moved into his custom 'boogie van' after being what he calls 'renovicted' from his East Vancouver home. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Though unlike Bilovus, Way is frozen in 1972, despite being born 13 years later. His van is a green "boogie van" he calls Medusa.

The customized GMC is outfitted with multi-coloured shag carpeting on the floor, walls, and ceiling. 

"They call it the roach coach, because if you drop a roach in it, you'll never find it," Way said, as he perched in Medusa's sliding doorway. He parked next to an East Vancouver park, where the sound of children playing in the nearby water park can be heard across the field.

"Not everyone who lives in a shag-van with a small little bubble window is, in any regard, a predator. In fact, they're probably the sweetest, nicest laid-back people ever," he said. "They live in a van — it's pretty chill."

Way has filled his van with vintage decorations, a box of classic rock records and a collection of 8-tracks. The van only has a radio and 8-track player, so he uses an adaptor to insert cassettes, and then a second adaptor to plug in his cellphone. 

Elliot C. Way's van, named Medusa, is stocked with classic rock records and 8-tracks. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Earlier this year, Way was renting in an East Vancouver home, but he hit the road and travelled south when his landlord got permits to redevelop.

"I came back and couldn't find anything on Craigslist or Kijiji that I was interested in or could afford if I was interested in it," Way said.

Like Bilovus, Way plans to ride out the summer and then go south again when the weather gets cold — "just chase the sun around," he said.

While Bilovus and Way sleep in regular-sized vans with limited facilities, another style of van dweller populates a few hot spots in Vancouver.

Several people appear to be living in vans, RVs and renovated school buses in the area around Strathcona Park in Vancouver. (Roshini Nair/CBC)
The City of Vancouver uses a bylaw prohibiting large vehicles from parking next to public parks, schools, churches, or residential property to fine people living in RVs. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The upscale Point Grey neighbourhood near Jericho Beach is one such popular spot. The people staying there say they seem to be tolerated by the bylaw enforcement officers who are known to target people living in RVs with $50 to $100 fines.

Kim O'Connell and his partner can often be found there. He's a retiree who recently bought an older RV with a leaky roof and took the ferry over from Nanaimo, B.C.

"I'm just looking forward to a little bit of sunshine today and I'm gonna head down to the beach pretty soon and spend the day on the beach," he said, sitting on the vehicle's stoop.

"It's all about enjoyment for me," he said. "I worked my 40 years, I just want to enjoy the rest of my life and this is how I'm doing it."

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

"I think the trend is that people don't want to pay rent. People want to just enjoy, rather than having a mortgage and having to mow the lawn every week."

O'Connell's RV has a tarp draped over the roof, but it's clean and seems quite comfortable. He and his partner, who has a regular job in the city, enjoy the luxuries of a fridge, stove, bathtub, and toilet.

"I'm sure there's things that you don't have, things that you give up ... but it's good for me, I like it."

Parked behind O'Connell was a completely different sort of van dweller. Camillo Huck is a 21-year-old German traveller who calls Toronto home, sort of.

Camillo Huck travelled from Toronto to the southern U.S. and north up the West Coast to Vancouver in his Ford Aerostar. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

He's been on the road since he struck out from Ontario earlier this year. He drove his white Ford Aerostar to southern California and then north up the West Coast. Huck had been in Vancouver for a couple weeks and was in the process of selling the van to move into a camper, and planned to continue on to Alaska.

"You realize that you have such a small space — I mean if you look at my car, you can barely fit two people in it ... but that's all you need," Huck said.

"For parking, Vancouver especially is actually kind of cool. Because you have spots like this one where you can stay 24 hours and don't have to pay. In the States — especially in the big cities — you have to pay and you can't stay there overnight," he said.

Danielle Chabassol and Mat Dubé are also enjoying the nomadic lifestyle that a van offers. They're fans of the "living small" movement and broadcast their travels online with regular YouTube videos and blog posts.

Danielle Chabassol and Mat Dubé are planning to travel around Quebec and the Atlantic provinces this summer, after spending last summer in their van in B.C. (Mat Dubé)

Last summer the couple roamed around B.C. before getting a house-sitting stint through the cold months. This summer they're staying out East, travelling through Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.

"The difference is that nobody is doing it out East," said Dubé. "There's almost nobody and we thought it seemed very popular to us in the West."

Mat Dubé prepares a meal outside the van he shares with Danielle Chabassol. Dubé is an artist and, along with Chabassol, he blogs and posts videos online about his travels. (Mat Dubé)

Chabassol, who's able to get work online she can do from anywhere, agreed.

"Everywhere we went in B.C. there were 'no overnight parking' signs and camper vans everywhere," she said. "It seems like it's a huge thing, and it's probably because of the weather and probably — I don't know, everyone out there seems a little bit more open-minded."

Classic-rocker Way has also noticed B.C. tends to attract van dwellers. He believes it's because of the high cost of housing and the rapid redevelopment of older houses, as well as the mild weather.

A renovated school bus is parked near Clark Drive and 1st Avenue in Vancouver. The resident works as a casual construction worker, and moves from place to place to avoid trouble from the authorities. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"We are the California of Canada, and it's the only place you can really do it year-round — or mostly year-round — and survive living in a van," he said.

For people like Bilovus and O'Connell, living in a van is a retirement decision they plan to stick with as long as it works, but others, like Huck, can see an end in sight, and sometimes long for a regular home.

"If your home is moving, you never settle down. Sometimes you're just driving for miles and miles and miles, and you just want to be somewhere," Huck said. "There's a reason why we build houses."

With files from Tina Lovgreen and Roshini Nair