Unable to afford housing, this man lives in a trailer and spent months in a Windsor parking lot

People have spent months and even more than a year, living out of their vehicles in Windsor-Essex as house prices and rental rates continue to soar.

'I don't like it and there's just some days ... I feel less of a person,' Dave Dresser

Here's what it's like to live in a trailer for months

CBC News Windsor

3 months ago
High rent in Windsor-Essex means Dave Dresser, 49, has been camping out in parking lots since September. 1:33

Dave Dresser spent the winter living in a parking lot.

The 49-year-old has been eating and sleeping in a camper since September, unable to afford a place to rent.

He's not alone, with others spending months and even more than a year, living out of their vehicles in Windsor-Essex.

It's a hard life, said Dresser, describing the difficulty of finding a place to clean up and being forced to go to the washroom in bottles and garbage bags.

"I'm used to a shower daily and brushing my teeth and personally, due to my medications, as well as not brushing my teeth daily anymore, my teeth have actually been falling out, literally falling out on their own," he said.

"I don't like it and there's just some days that it lowers my self esteem. I feel less of a person."

While large-scale COVID-19 outbreaks and questions about how to best-serve people experiencing homelessness have been a source of debate in recent weeks, much of that discussion has focused on downtown and the shelter system.

Dresser's story and search for stability offers a glimpse into a struggle happening across the city — one hidden in plain sight.

He said he suffered a workplace injury in 2009 and still grapples with it today, scraping by on disability benefits.

"I'm not a drug addict of any sort. I'm not an alcoholic. I've just, unfortunately, hit a lot of dead-end roads," he said.

'Where can we go next?'

From November until mid-January he was parked, along with five or six other trailers and RVs, in the back corner of a lot outside a Windsor big box store.

Chris Cook, one of the founders of a Facebook page called Windsorites Helping Windsorites, said community members supported the group with food and clothing for for months.

"It was nice to be able to just be in one spot," said Dresser.

"To me that's just [the] sad thing. The better part of us were no problem to anybody here."

They camped out through Christmas, but about two months ago signs went up on light poles across the lot stating that the parking lot is for customers only, with a three-hour limit and no overnight parking.

Dave Dresser, 49, was staying in the parking lot of a big box store in Windsor for a couple of months, before he was forced to move his camper in early January. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Dresser said he and the others were forced to leave.

"It was frustrating. It was a scary feeling because then you try to figure out, OK, where can we go next?"

After camping in church parking lots for a couple of nights he caught a break — someone responded to a plea he posted on Facebook asking for a place to stay. CBC is not revealing where he is staying to protect his safety and privacy.

Almost like 'living hell'

Dresser said he's been told he can camp there until April, but after that he'll be back to searching.

"It's really difficult. There are some days that I just feel really driven down," he said.

"I'm trying to figure out ... where do I go? To try and plan a day some days is almost like living hell."

Another man CBC spoke to said he's been living in his SUV for more than a year.

A look inside the vehicle revealed a hot plate and stacks of sleeping bags and blankets he wraps himself up in when the temperature plunges below –20 in the winter.

The man said every night he sleeps surrounded by his belongings, worried he'll be woken up by a knock on the window and someone telling him to leave.

The wait list for social housing in Windsor is roughly 5,400, according to Kirk Whittal, CCO of the Windsor-Essex Community Housing Corporation (CHC).

Dresser has found a place to park his camper, but says he may be searching for a new place to park by the end of the month. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Last year, CHC and 38 other housing providers in the city, managed about 450 placements between then, but this year that number will likely be "significantly lower," he said.

While city council has approved a "historic" investment in community housing, it's part of a long-term plan and the wait for housing can be lengthy.

Whittal pointed to COVID-19 as something that's making people stay put, but also spiking house prices and rental rates.

"People don't have the option to get out of the private market unless they have the ability to pay close to $1,000 a month for rent, which is very difficult if you're looking for social housing."

While Windsor-Essex has been looked at as more affordable in the past, the recent explosion in housing prices has put a squeeze on people, said Whittal, adding he believes that change is behind people living out of their vehicles now.

"Those are extremely unfortunate situations in the community," he said.

Places 'just don't seem to be there'

The 2019 report prepared as part of the Windsor Essex Housing and Homelessness Master Plan shows 168 families in the area were experiencing chronic homelessness in 2018. That number jumped to 342 the following year.

A point-in-time count to provide an updated number of people experiencing homelessness is set to happen later this month.

A city spokesperson said anytime staff hear about someone sleeping rough, including in their vehicle, they're contacted by outreach workers who try to offer support.

Dresser has a place to park until the end of the month.

He said he's hoping he'll be allowed to stay a littler longer, but knows the search for a place to stay will likely start again soon.

With rent prices rising, the chance that he'll someday have a place to call his own seems less likely all the time.

"Just because I'm living in a camper all winter, doesn't mean that I'm a bad person," Dresser said.

"There's a lot of good people that are very deserving that are looking for places, that just don't seem to be there."