'Van life' is trending, but for some Yukoners it's a final resort amid housing crisis

Living out of a van is a trending lifestyle sold as an alternative form of housing that promises mobility and freedom. But for some people in Whitehorse, living in a vehicle is a very practical decision amid the territory’s housing crisis.

'It's going to be better mentally, physically, monetarily,' says Whitehorse resident

Amy Hrebien says moving into her van is the only way she can afford to own her own place in Whitehorse with the high rental rates in the city. She isn't alone. (Danielle d'Entremont/ CBC)

If you look up the hashtag 'van life' on TikTok, you'll join about 4.8 billion others who are looking at videos of beautiful, shiny vans with macrame plant holders and fairy lights.

It's a trending lifestyle sold as an alternative form of housing that promises mobility and freedom.

But for some people in Whitehorse, living in a vehicle is a very practical decision amid the territory's housing crisis. For others, it's one of their only options.

Amy Hrebien would love to own a home, but she says it isn't realistic in Yukon's housing market today.

"The cost of housing has gone up dramatically, but the cost of wages and stuff hasn't gone up to compensate for that," she said.

Since 2010, the median rent for apartments in Whitehorse has gone up from $750 to $1,155 — an increase of 54 per cent.

In just a few days Hrebien plans to move into her van full-time, a lifestyle change she says will take a weight off her shoulders.

"It's going to be better mentally, physically, monetarily," said Hrebien. "I don't have to worry so much about my future … at least I have a roof over my head."

Hrebien finishing up renovations in her new home. She hopes to move in over the next few days after putting in some finishing touches. (Danielle d'Entremont/ CBC)

'No choice but to relocate or freeze to death'

Another Whitehorse resident has been living in a camper trailer for the past two months. CBC has agreed not to name him due to his fear that he'll be denied future rental opportunities.

He says he can't find an apartment that is affordable and that will take his pet, a barrier he says makes finding a place "virtually impossible."

If nothing else came up, I would probably have absolutely no choice but to relocate somewhere else or freeze to death.- Whitehorse resident living in camper van

"Housing and shelter should be a human right, not something you're desperately seeking to get at the expense of paying somebody else's mortgage or somebody else profiting off it."

He is on the waitlist for social housing, and he's worried about winter in a camper trailer that isn't prepared for temperatures that could dip down to -40 C. 

"If nothing else came up, I would probably have absolutely no choice but to relocate somewhere else or freeze to death. These are your options."

365 people on Yukon Housing wait list

As of July, there were 365 people on the wait list for Yukon Housing units, and 151 of those were seniors according to Aneesha Singh, a spokesperson for the Yukon Housing Corporation.

Singh also told CBC in an email that 40 households on the wait list are getting a rental subsidy under the Canada Yukon Housing Benefit.

And as rental rates increase, vacancy rates are decreasing in Yukon.

The average vacancy rate was 3.4 per cent in October for all buildings in Whitehorse, according to the latest Yukon rent survey from the territory's Bureau of Statistics. 

There were no available rental units reported for Dawson and Haines Junction, and only one vacant rental unit was reported for Watson Lake. 

Hrebien made artwork for the back windows to make her van feel more like a home. She says this lifestyle is a viable option for other singles in Whitehorse who can't afford today's housing market. (Danielle d'Entremont/ CBC)

"A shortage of housing options along with high costs for rental housing and home ownership, and, particularly in some communities, limited availability of alternatives (private rental housing), has resulted in added pressures in an already tight market," said Singh.

Singh said the territorial government is working to end and prevent homelessness around vulnerable Yukoners, by "investing across all parts of the housing continuum."

The Yukon Housing Corporation's 47-unit mixed-income affordable housing project under construction in Whitehorse. It is also supporting large projects such as Boreal Commons in Whitehorse's Whistlebend neighbourhood, which will add 87 new rental and affordable homes, she added.

Hrebien has been watching YouTube videos to learn more about how to get her van ready to be her home. (Danielle d'Entremont/ CBC)

Uptick in homelessness among all financial backgrounds

Kate Mechan, executive director of Yukon's Safe at Home Society, says the organization is seeing a "huge uptick" in people from all different income backgrounds experiencing homelessness.

"We're no longer hearing that affordability is just impacting vulnerable people, or the working poor, you know it's starting to impact many people across the housing continuum," Mechan said.

Mechan said that the organization has been involved in multiple efforts to facilitate more streamlined access to social housing, with more apartment buildings expected to come in the next year.

But she said it is hard to predict what is going to happen to people who don't fit in one bedroom and two bedroom apartments, such as families.

"I would say we've barely scratched the surface in terms of youth homelessness and and people experiencing more hidden forms of homelessness."

The organization's data, she said, shows that more hidden forms of homelessness, such as couch surfing, are where people gravitate to.

It also recently did a point in time count of homeless people in Whitehorse, those numbers are expected next month.


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