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How Vancouver Youth Feel about Life in ‘World’s Most Livable City’

A roundtable discussion with the next generation. Part of a reader-funded series.

By Katie Hyslop 23 Nov 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Her work is supported by Tyee Builders and a matching contribution from the Vancouver Foundation. Supporters neither influence nor endorse the particular content of the reporting. Other publications wishing to publish Katie’s work can contact editor Chris Wood here.

By now we’ve all heard the “nearly-impossible-to-buy-a-house, almost-as-hard-to-afford-rent, and-wages-are-too-low” blues of Vancouver’s struggling millennials. But what’s it like for the generation coming up next?

Turns out the city’s teenagers-to-early 20-somethings, those still in school or just finishing off a post-secondary program, still worry about finding a place to live they can afford. But that’s not all that’s on their minds.

The Tyee partnered with PeerNet BC, a non-profit peer group facilitation organization, to contact young people ages 13 to 24 living in Metro Vancouver who might be willing to share their hopes and fears for themselves and their city with us. We narrowed down a pool of volunteer candidates into a group of six young people, prioritizing their diversity to hear from voices not always represented in mainstream media.

Their thoughts are far from a scientific sampling (our group was mostly female, for example). But over two hours of conversation on a recent evening, we got a glimpse of what it’s like to be young in Vancouver today: uncertain of the future, concerned about where the city is headed, and ambivalent about their future here.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: ‘Do you consider the Lower Mainland home?’

Monica Alas (22): I would say it’s home. It’s my new home.

Carmen Huang (17): I would say yes, because I’ve been living here my whole entire life.

Braughn Loften (17): If someone asks where is home I would say Vancouver, but it doesn’t feel like home. Coming into the city now, because I live outside of it, going into places in town that are really wealthy where I can’t see myself being able to sustain a future, it feels like I don’t belong here.

Jessica Leung (23): I guess it’s good. I feel quite isolated. I’m not sure how to connect with some areas in Burnaby, because there are not a lot of events going on there. I often have to come to Vancouver.

Jenni P. (15): Vancouver has always been home to me. Even when I travel to other places, I can’t think of myself living any place else. But I don’t know how I can sustain a future here with the prices. That’s all my friends really talk about nowadays.

Marita Michaelis (24): I don’t think it’s a simple answer. My parents aren’t from here, and knowing that I have no ancestry from here, and considering the ongoing process of colonization here in Vancouver, it gives me a really strange relationship to being here and trying to reconcile that in a way that is not just horrendous and can be helpful. I’ve always had the desire to go somewhere that makes more sense for me. But finding that space has been challenging, and leaving here is hard.

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Marita Michaelis: ‘The ongoing colonization here in Vancouver gives me a strange relationship to being here, trying to reconcile that in a way that can be helpful.’ Photo by Christopher Cheung.

‘Where do you see yourself living in 10 years?’

Monica Alas: For now I think this is home, however I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

Carmen Huang: I would obviously want to live in Vancouver, but if it doesn’t work out maybe I can leave and move somewhere cheaper and come back to Vancouver when I have the money.

Braughn Loften: I’d like to go abroad and travel, teach and volunteer. But ultimately, I can see myself settling down somewhere in the Maritimes. They’re so much cheaper. And being close to the ocean is something my family’s always done.

Jessica Leung: I think I’ll still be living in Vancouver. But I think I’ll be living maybe part-time in Bellingham, part-time in Vancouver. And maybe have a place to stay in both.

Jenni P.: I’d like to live in Vancouver. But I could always go somewhere that’s nearby, like Surrey or Abbotsford. Abbotsford is a lot more quiet compared to Vancouver, it’s a lot more like the countryside. Whereas Vancouver is close to the water, all my friends are here, even though I don’t know where they’ll be in the future.

Marita Michaelis: I think I might be a little disappointed if I am still here. But I am very curious to see what Vancouver will look like in 10 years, because I’ve seen it change so drastically in some ways, but also people have really fought for the city to maintain its integrity and to hold onto things that are important. So I’d like to see what lasts, and I don’t want to just abandon it.

‘Vancouver has been named one of the most livable cities in the world. What do you think?’

Carmen Huang: The city’s really nice, but after hearing all about the homeless people and refugees [feeling unwelcome], I don’t feel like it’s exactly livable yet.

Braughn Loften: Vancouver has such a façade. People talk about, ‘Oh, I just got this new MEC jacket, I do all this yoga, and I go to this trendy new poké restaurant,’ but underneath they’re working eight hours, six days a week, just to be able to make rent and pay their phone bill. And sometimes those two things can’t even happen. To an outsider it looks livable, but underneath so many people are struggling so hard to make it look livable to them.

Jessica Leung: I kind of agree [that Vancouver is livable] but not really, because it’s like a superficial world that we’re living in. And also of course it relates to connection and access, or lack thereof. For example, the SkyTrain [shut down] tonight, people depend on it to go to work, to easily commute, but it didn’t really work out today. And there are a lot of barriers that keep compounding and it gets more and more challenging to be here. There’s no way to prove it’s the best place in the world, I don’t know how they did that.

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‘Before moving here I loved the city. It wasn’t until I moved that I realized there is a lot of issues around homelessness, drugs.’ Monica Alas (L) with Carmen Huang. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Jenni P.: We have a lot going for us: we have clean air, we have hydro power, we have a lot of events. But there’s always some kind of struggle. We still have difficulty taking care of our own citizens, whether they’re people who are on the streets right now, who are struggling to find a place to live, to find an opportunity to make it here. But there can only be so many opportunities for the amount of people that come here.

Marita Michaelis: The city can’t really take credit for the nature it occupies, a mild climate, basically, and pretty mountains and ocean. I can’t properly compare it to anywhere else, but I think it’s pretty ridiculous. Like if this is the most livable city, then the world is a horrible place, I think.

Monica Alas: I think the person who wrote the article maybe hadn’t lived here yet. [Laughter] Before moving here I came as a visitor and I loved the city. It wasn’t until I moved to live here that I realized there are a lot of issues around homelessness, drugs.

Even the salaries are so low, how are we supposed to live and pay rent? My friends, many of us, are in a kind of survivor mode: just minimum salary or a little bit more, but you have to pay a huge rent. And finding a place to rent here is so hard. Especially as a newcomer, people ask me for references and you don’t know anybody.

‘What are the biggest challenges facing your age group in the city right now?’

Monica Alas: Getting study loans, scholarships, bursaries. We’re expected to finish high school and then immediately go to university or college. But, come on, we’re not millionaires.

Carmen Huang: Maybe unemployment. I’m still 17, but I feel like the government might need to create more jobs and job opportunities for the future.

Braughn Loften: Especially finding fulfilling employment. Your only options are you finish high school and you immediately get into a full-time, minimum wage job and you’re just scraping by. Or you finish your degree, and you’re just spat back into the world to take another full-time, minimum wage job.

It’s really frustrating to be young in this city because it looks from so many perspectives like you have to basically win the lottery to be able to live here comfortably.

Jessica Leung: It’s really frustrating to prove that I need accommodation for schooling. I have to prove that I’m deaf, I have to show documentation. I have two options [for access]: ASL [American Sign Language], or typing or captioning things. I just feel like it’s not really appropriate.

Marita Michaelis: This house I live in now was sold to be torn down and turned into condos. It’s in the area they sometimes call Little Saigon: Kensington-Cedar Cottage. And as I’m here, I’ve seen different shops pop up in the neighbourhood: fancy weed stores, coffee shops. I’ve seen hip people move to the neighbourhood, friends of mine, and seen it change. Not entirely — a lot of people have been there a long time and it still has the same feeling in a lot of places. But I see that process happening.

And then when I get my eviction notice, I’ll find another house to move into that’s also slated for redevelopment. That’s my current situation, and it has been for the past several years because I choose to stay in Vancouver.

‘What’s being done to address these issues?’

Monica Alas: About minimum wage, we just had a big, big change a few months ago: 30 cents! [Everyone laughs] I think they’re not really realizing what [it is like] living in the minimum wage, because they are not getting paid that. Many newcomers have tons of experience [and are] just making minimum wage, and I can tell you they are not living with their parents. Even there are local people who are still getting paid minimum wage and they’re not living with their parents.

Carmen Huang: For job opportunities I don’t see much now. But they’ve been saying that by 2020 we might have more. So maybe we’ll see what happens in 2020.

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vanessa bui (L), whose non-profit peer-group facilitation organization, PeerNetBC, helped bring the conversation together, with Monica Alas. Photo Christopher Cheung.

Braughn Loften: They’re talking about creating all these jobs, but they’re all on these huge projects, resources that we know aren’t sustainable and won’t last long. So instead of trying to create sustainable jobs in sustainable industries, they’re pushing what they know will make them a quick buck.

Jessica Leung: Not a lot [is being done]. Like PWD [Person with Disabilities] benefit, that’s one thing that we have. But that itself doesn’t pay very much. I feel there are no opportunities for me to work out there. What business is going to accept me for who I am? And there’s very little deaf representation, so people don’t know.

Jenni P.: With cost of living, I feel like it can only go up. Unless something tragic happens that drives [out] all the people who come here for the name of Vancouver, and then costs would go down. The only people who would stay are the people who were born here.

Marita Michaelis: The only things that I see are community members working on the ground, using many tactics of resistance. Or supporting each other and alleviating the stress or pain. But I don’t really see it in a meaningful way from the top down, unless it’s as a response to insistent demands.

‘What’s not improving?’

Monica Alas: Housing, and therefore homelessness. And just the cost of life here in general.

Carmen Huang: I feel like some people might not be able to go to school because they don’t have the financial means to go.

Braughn Loften: I think definitely housing costs. My stepdad bought a house in New Westminster in 2014 for under $600,000, and all the houses in our neighbourhood are now worth $1.1 million because investors and speculators are buying them, knocking them down and building monster houses with three plus units in them. It just seems like everyone’s just grabbing onto it because it’s a cash cow, but no one’s doing anything about the people that are being driven away by it.

Jessica Leung: Deaf people, we don’t [always] have the finances and subsidies of the government. I often ask people, ‘Do you get the PWD? Do you know about it?’ and sometimes they’re like, ‘No one’s told me about it.’ And most of the time they just give up with the process. It’s so much paper work, and you have to go to the office and back. And oftentimes you show up and there’s a huge lineup. It’s really crazy.

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‘Ultimately, I can see myself in the Maritimes. They’re so much cheaper’ — Braughn Loften (L). ‘I think I’ll be living maybe part-time in Bellingham, part-time in Vancouver, a place to stay in both’ — Jessica Leung (R). Photo Christopher Cheung.

Jenni P.: The priority for education. The school board gets fired, we’re closing down schools. My school was one of the schools they were planning to close. We didn’t even get a choice about which school we wanted to go to, they put you in the school you’re nearest to. They didn’t really care that they were breaking up a community. Everyone was really emotionally distraught.

Marita Michaelis: The environment definitely comes to mind, because it’s something that can’t easily or quickly get better. When I think of the different pipeline developments, there is a really strong resistance to those. But if any of those go through, that could be really devastating. The stakes are really high, whereas other areas that we talked about, I feel like solutions are more straightforward. Once terrible things happen to the environment, it’s not easily taken back or undone.

‘What’s your optimistic vision of Vancouver’s future? And what would it take to get there?’

Monica Alas: I would think there would be more social movements, race awareness, and empower[ed] youth and community in general.

Carmen Huang: I think Vancouver is spectacular. I volunteer at Trout Lake, and each month we do a community cleanup. I feel like more youth should come out and do a community cleanup, and things for the community.

Braughn Lofton: One thing I’d like to see is healthcare access improve. Especially for people below the poverty line, people with drug issues, people who are homeless, as well as trans people. Because in Vancouver right now there are two clinics that handle trans health, and there are thousands of trans people in the city. I’d like to see that every doctor and hospital is trained in how to handle trans healthcare, as well as awareness around trans gender-ness.

Jessica Leung: It’s about how to have partnerships within your communities, as well empowering our deaf community, trans, queer communities. Not feeling alone, feeling like you have community. Learning how to have compassion, and a deep understanding of each person’s journey. Also being aware of the politics and political landscape.

Jenni P.: For more people to be politically aware, and I’m not just talking about Donald Trump and Putin and Kim Jong-Un. Obviously I don’t know every single government system in every single country, but it’s good to have an idea.

Because people are only concerned with what affects them. What I’ve noticed is that some feminists care about issues that happen to them. But when it comes to transgender issues, disability issues, or people of colour issues, they turn a blind eye because it doesn’t affect them. So they don’t recognize the spectrum that when you’re a feminist and you want a better life for women, it should include all women.

‘If you were premier what is one thing you would you do differently?’

Carmen Huang: I wouldn’t just focus on the private schools. I think for public schools we should have more funding, more opportunities.

Braughn Loften: First and foremost, changing our resource industries. Because when we make those more sustainable, we can profit off them in a better way. And then we can put that profit into things that are starved for funding, like public infrastructure, healthcare, disability benefits and education.

Jenni P.: Just more focus on the education system. But I feel like I’m a little biased because I’m still a student.

Monica Alas: [A mandatory] social justice course. I know not too many people are interested, but that’s the reason why we should have it. I think that’s why there is a lot of indifference. You can see just this mall around the corner, a wallet is $3,000, and there is a homeless person [outside] who hasn’t had a meal in the whole day.  [Tyee]

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