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Municipal Politics

Vancouver’s RV Residents Prepare for a Crackdown

The city has largely left van dwellers like Todd Sallomi alone during the pandemic. But that’s changed.

Christopher Cheung 28 May

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

In many ways, Todd Sallomi’s life as a retiree in East Vancouver isn’t that different from his neighbours’ in houses or apartments. He waters his outdoor plants. He sweeps the sidewalk outside his home. He chats up the teens from the nearby high school, the ones who ask about his mohawk and his longboard.

But Sallomi lives in an RV, which are illegal to park overnight on Vancouver streets. And on Thursday morning — after lax pandemic enforcement — police, bylaw officials and a tow truck showed up to begin removing the community where two dozen people once lived in their vehicles.

Sallomi doesn’t see any problems with his lifestyle. “I don’t keep my dirty underwear out here. I dry my stuff inside. Even the city parking guys said my place is nice and clean.”

For eight months, the former counsellor parked on Slocan by 12th Avenue, a surprisingly busy inner street near a Lowe’s, a megachurch and Vancouver Technical Secondary School. There are no houses nearby or signs forbidding street parking — good criteria for van and RV dwellers like Sallomi in search of a place to stay.

In Vancouver, an increasing number of people have been making vehicles their homes, settling by parks and industry and staying away from residential areas where complaints bring police and bylaw officers. There are currently clusters by Jericho Beach, the Terminal Avenue Home Depot, under the Arthur Laing Bridge and near the many warehouses along Boundary Road.

No one counts them officially, but three years ago the city said it was in touch with a few hundred such residents, and that number has only grown.

Some cities like Surrey and Squamish have banned sleeping in large vehicles on public streets. Vancouver uses parking bylaws to discourage the practice.

No vehicle is allowed in one public spot for more than three hours during the day, and RVs can’t be parked overnight on streets.

Pre-COVID, the city would crack down on people who were “illegally parked” after two warnings. But provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has encouraged local governments to minimize housing displacement during the pandemic.

Vancouver followed suit, responding to complaints about vehicle dwellers and monitoring where they cluster, but avoided ticketing and towing them as the city once did.

“We don’t want to be enforcing and risking people’s loss of accommodation,” said Taryn Scollard, the city’s director of streets. In addition to the pandemic, her team has the housing and overdose crises in mind. The city also avoids displacing people if winter is approaching, she said.

But complaints about the Slocan community from Vancouver Technical’s parents and teachers have escalated. Vehicle dwellers in other neighbourhoods have increased, with city staff suspecting that Vancouver’s lax pandemic enforcement is encouraging those from stricter municipalities to come over.

It’s problematic that some citizens “have the notion that people living in RVs are outright a criminal element,” said Scollard, but ultimately, “city streets aren’t a place for people to shelter.”

COVID-19 may still be around, but the City of Vancouver is now starting to remove clusters of vehicle dwellers from streets, beginning with Slocan. Staff are giving people four months’ notice before ticketing and towing begins, hoping that will give them enough time to relocate.

On Thursday morning, enforcement day, half of Slocan’s two dozen vehicle dwellers were scared off by the warnings. Those who remained were issued warning tickets and told that bylaw officers would return next week.

Only one RV ended up being towed; its occupant had not been seen in three days.

Listen Chen, a member of housing advocacy group Red Braid Alliance, has been helping organize RV residents. Chen called on the city to let them stay as a “bare minimum” way not to make Vancouver’s housing crisis worse.

Not everyone who chooses to live in an RV has a history of homelessness. The housing crisis — long social housing waitlists, bad SRO options, soaring rents and home prices — means an increasing number of people who live in vehicles come from any class background.

For those who do need housing help, the city’s homelessness services team works to help vehicle dwellers find it. City staff have said only “when all options have been exhausted” do they ticket and tow a vehicle — and not if someone is still inside.

Sallomi has spent time in an SRO, living in the Downtown Eastside’s Glory Hotel for five years. Nine of his neighbours died in that time, he says.

“One guy was dead for a week,” he said. “I was the one who opened the door and was assaulted by the smell... I was quiet. I had a cat. For people who need a place to stay, a room is better than the streets. But I can’t do that again. I would stay homeless if I had to.”

He decided he had enough last summer and moved into an RV he bought for $6,900. He had always wanted to drive across the country and plans to hit the road as soon as COVID is over.

He first parked with the Terminal Avenue community near the aptly named Home Depot.

“There’s nice people there, but things started disappearing,” he said, lamenting his lost hibachi. “We were cooking steaks one night and I left it out. When I got up in the morning, it was gone. They didn’t take the charcoal, they didn’t take the lighter fluid, they didn’t take the tongs; they took the grill and left everything else.”

He moved in September and has stayed near Slocan since. He feels safer in his new spot. Rather than having things stolen, he’s had his lost wallet found by a student. Eventually he hopes to move into modular housing with the help of Carnegie Outreach.

The people on Slocan living in cleaner, insured vehicles say they’re upset about the complaints of garbage, noise and human excrement that they are supposedly responsible for, painting them as bad neighbours.

They say they’re the victims of their own bad neighbours, people who’ve ditched their RVs on the street and disappeared, leaving a mess behind. Other people, including truckers, drive by the area to dump their trash too, they say.

“We generally don’t have a problem with individuals, one or two RVs potentially moving around, or are just sort of out of sight,” said the city’s Scollard. “It’s the clusters that are the problem.”

The few residents who were here pre-pandemic are upset about that “clustering” of less-responsible vehicle-owners who’ve followed them here, drawing city attention.

Across the street from Sallomi, Richard Stewart fries bacon in his Vanguard RV. A Hello Kitty thermos sits on the counter. A neat row of shirts hang by the door. At 11 a.m. it’s a late breakfast, but for a retiree used to early mornings in the forestry industry, this is the life.

“I haven’t had any trouble here until now,” said Stewart, who’s preparing to return to Vancouver Island. “I don’t think a parking spot should be that controversial a thing. I think we can do better than just ask people to move along.”

He’s been asked that a lot ever since he moved into his van.

“I’ve been in Campbell River, Courtenay, lots of places, and I’ve had the police show up in what I thought would be in the middle of nowhere to tell me the neighbours are complaining. What neighbours? I’m sure I was within my rights to be there. It wasn’t anyone’s land.”

And then there’s the stigma. On weekends, the RVs have been pelted with bottles and bags of dog poo. This morning, cars driving along Slocan slowed down to look at the RVs, one woman even offering a disapproving head shake to Stewart’s neighbour.

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Wherever he parks, it’s annoying how police and bylaw officials always find him, says Richard Stewart. Photos by Christopher Cheung.

“As soon as I started living this way, I realized there’s prejudice about your caste,” said Stewart. “You could be the premier of this province, but as soon as you live in an RV, you’re just a pauper.”

C.C., a neighbour of Stewart, is getting ready to move, but she’s not sure where. The city has offered a free tow to any legal location, but it’s noon, and she’s been calling around the Lower Mainland with no luck.

A farmer in Richmond said she was welcome but recommended she wait because of the rain, which would leave her parking “literally in a bog.” As for motor homes, they have waiting lists, or only allow newish motor homes.

C.C. started living in her 35-foot RV when the house she was renting burnt down.

“I can’t sneak into neighbourhoods in the middle of the night and drive away,” she says. She works full time and doesn’t want to share any identifying details, stressing that she isn’t on welfare and isn’t homeless.

“This,” she said, pointing to her RV, “is my home. I work every day. I pay my bills. I pay my taxes. The only thing I don’t have is an address.”

She’s watched people complain about the Slocan vehicle community on the news, but says the closest nearby residents live in co-ops on the other side of Grandview Highway, and they’re not complaining.

In fact, 22 residents of the Kaslo Gardens co-op wrote a letter to the city, asking for the Slocan parkers not to be evicted.

William Cook likely had something to do with it. He’s worked in plumbing, gas and electric for 30 years and is an all-around handyman, which makes him a popular guy in a community of vehicle dwellers.

He fixes things, found a nearby well with water, and last month even played the role of rescuer when a van caught fire.

It had been abandoned, but two people moved in and tried to fix it up. When Cook saw the fire, he rushed over with his extinguisher to put it out. It was too late for the man inside, who died.

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A memorial to Ross, who moved into an abandoned vehicle on Slocan a year ago, and died in a fire last month. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Cook is a neighbourly guy, to the extent that Sallomi calls him Slocan’s mayor. One day, a man cycling down the street had trouble with his bike chain and Cook gave him a hand. The man, grateful, asked how much. Cook said it was fine because he was “from the ‘hood.”

Cook found out it was Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, who signed the co-op’s letter of support.

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William Cook holds up a letter to city council from 22 residents of the Kaslo Gardens Housing Co-op in support of the Slocan vehicle dwellers. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

“We cannot believe the solution to homelessness is to use the threat of eviction to disperse this gathering,” it reads. “If anything, cracking down will only increase the number of homeless people in our city. There are short-term fixes available — don’t want garbage? Provide a dumpster. Don’t want waste? Provide portapotties. Don’t want campers by a school? Let RVs park elsewhere.”

Like other RV dwellers, Cook is disillusioned with housing in the city.

“I left my penthouse in the West Van. I had 2,500 square feet, three balconies overlooking the water by the beach. I worked my balls off my whole life.... Then when I got home, I would get in trouble for going up the elevator because I was tired and my boots clunked. You know, if you fart, the cops are banging on your door,” he said.

“I was paying $3,500 a month. It was a lot of money. So I say, I can’t do this anymore. I left it, knowing I wanted to live in a motorhome. I wanted to do it for a long time. And now that I’ve done it for five years, I want to do it for another five years.”

*Story updated on May 31 at 9:31 a.m. to specify the number of residents at Kaslo Gardens who signed the letter of support.  [Tyee]

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