He sleeps in a van but drives a Tesla: life on wheels in Vancouver’s camper community

He sleeps in a van but drives a Tesla: life on wheels in Vancouver's camper community
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Lucas Philips is pictured outside his camper and next to his Tesla in a parking lot where he has been living at Spanish Banks, in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022. Philips is part of Metro Vancouver's camper community, some living on wheels as an economic strategy, some as a lifestyle choice and others as a last resort.

At the end of his day, Lucas Philips drives to his home overlooking Spanish Banks Beach in Vancouver, near some of the most expensive real estate in Canada.

He¬†climbs out of his black¬†Tesla¬†and soaks up what¬†he¬†calls his “million-dollar view.”

But Philips is no wealthy property owner. His home is a Vanguard campervan berthed in a beachside parking lot.

He¬†spends most of his life on wheels, working as an Uber driver¬†in¬†his leased¬†Tesla. He’s trying to get ahead, and lives¬†in¬†his “sweet motor home” while taking online courses¬†in¬†the hope of getting¬†a¬†job¬†in¬†computer science.

Philips, who immigrated from Turkey five years ago, thinks himself lucky to share the view with mansion owners without draining his savings.

He’s¬†a¬†member of¬†a¬†community of Vancouverites living¬†in¬†vans, trailers and other recreational vehicles parked across the city.

Some, like Philips, use it as an economic strategy to cut costs as they plot a course to prosperity.

Others have opted for a nomadic lifestyle, and plan to move on.

But more people are sleeping in vehicles as a last resort, as they try to stave off full-blown homelessness in the notoriously expensive city.

Philips said¬†in¬†an interview¬†in¬†November that¬†he¬†used to pay monthly rent of $1,600 for¬†a¬†one-bedroom suite¬†in¬†North Vancouver. When his rent went up to $2,300,¬†he¬†decided it didn’t make sense.

‚ÄúThe rent prices are just skyrocketing and it‚Äôs really feeling not that great when you pay for rent with half of your income,”¬†he¬†said.

So,¬†he¬†bought¬†a¬†van¬†and started living at Spanish Banks¬†in¬†October. Side benefits to the savings were that it made him feel closer to nature, and¬†he¬†enjoyed the¬†van¬†community’s friendly vibe.

He said he hoped to move back into an apartment this year to better focus on his studies.

However, others have embraced life on wheels.

Retired Californian mechanical engineer Alex Mosson, 58, was parked last week at Spanish Banks¬†in¬†a¬†beige recreational vehicle¬†he¬†called his ‚Äútiny house.”

He offered wine from a rack as he prepared a pot of clam chowder, with bacon and sourdough bread fresh out of the oven.

Newly arrived in Canada, he was joined by girlfriend Massie McCloud, 52, a retired airline pilot who lives in Kitsilano. They were planning to spend a few more nights in Vancouver, then Whistler, then head for Mexico, where Mosson used to live. In March, they plan to return for a cross-Canada journey, said McCloud.

‚ÄúDon‚Äôt get other people jealous,‚ÄĚ interjected Mosson.

McCloud likened the RV to ‚Äúa¬†giant backpack.”

“You have all your things with you,” she said. “Part of the reason we are both excited about doing this trip is that we both had really confined lives for the last several years,‚ÄĚ said McCloud, who added that she is recovering from long COVID.

But not everyone on wheels has a choice.

Over several visits to Spanish Banks, many residents appeared to be living out of cars and pickups, ill-equipped for the purpose.

Their windows were screened with makeshift curtains for privacy, their back seats and truck beds packed with possessions.

The residents approached in these situations were more cautious.

November rain dripped off the face of one man as he made repairs to his white box truck, strewn in black graffiti. He declined to give his name for an interview, saying he found his circumstances humiliating.

Dean Kurpjuweit, president of Vancouver’s Union Gospel Mission said vans and trailers have become a way for some working people to stay in the city amid high conventional housing costs.

But¬†the mission ‚Äúwill never advocate for living¬†in¬†vans as an alternative housing solution,‚Ä̬†he¬†said.

‚ÄúWe buy trailers to go on vacations. ‚Ķ¬†But¬†nobody wants to permanently (live there),‚Ä̬†he¬†said.

Kurpjuweit said his group had helped people move from recreational vehicles into supportive housing.

He¬†said there is¬†a¬†difference between the ‚Äúwilderness experience‚ÄĚ of an RV, compared with cramped and inconvenient long-term life¬†in¬†the city.

Living for an extended period¬†in¬†a¬†trailer¬†in¬†Vancouver is mostly due to the ‚Äúreality of the housing market here,” said Kurpjuweit.

Local residents said in summer and early fall that hundreds of people were living in vehicles at Spanish Banks. Dozens were still there in the fall, even after the City of Vancouver started warning people to move on, although their numbers dwindled with the onset of winter.

There are other campers in less scenic locations, clustered near big-box stores or scattered on quiet side streets.

Keith Light, 76, used to own¬†a¬†home on Pender Island,¬†a¬†40-minutes ferry ride to Swarts Bay on Vancouver Island.¬†But¬†for more than half¬†a¬†year he’s lived¬†in¬†a¬†recreational vehicle, now parked outside an east Vancouver Canadian Tire store.

In¬†2021, Light sold his island home to pay off debts.¬†He¬†said this week that it wasn‚Äôt until he’d relocated to Metro Vancouver that¬†he¬†realized housing costs were ‚Äúten times higher‚ÄĚ than on Pender.

He¬†lived with¬†a¬†friend, who got “a¬†little tired” of his presence after about¬†a¬†year, and¬†he¬†moved out¬†in¬†May.

‚ÄúSo, I got online and found this R.V. I got¬†a¬†pretty good deal on it, and it cost me $19,000,‚ÄĚ said Light, who lives on¬†a¬†monthly pension of $1,900.

He said it was comfortable but not a permanent solution.

For one thing, the¬†van¬†has no electricity. Light said two external generators had been stolen and the vehicle’s built-in¬†generator didn’t work.

There’s also¬†a¬†sense of insecurity faced by most vehicle dwellers.

It’s illegal to park¬†a¬†large vehicle on the street or¬†in¬†parks¬†in¬†Vancouver between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., including at Spanish Banks, although exceptions apply.¬†

Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Eva Cook said¬†in¬†a¬†statement that illegally parked RVs remain¬†a¬†“challenging issue”¬†in¬†many communities.

Since October, 47 notices reminding owners of parking rules were issued and most vehicles parked overnight at Spanish Banks had moved, she said.

Cook said it was still working to “educate” users that overnight parking isn‚Äôt allowed¬†in¬†parks.

Paul Kershaw,¬†a¬†policy professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of population, said many people living¬†in¬†vans are ‚Äújust as smart and as hard-working‚ÄĚ as homeowners.

But¬†some have been born too late and are now locked out of Vancouver’s real estate market or are facing prohibitive rent on even¬†a¬†one-bedroom apartment.

Vancouver remains the most expensive place to rent in Canada, with the average price of a one-bedroom apartment now going for $2,633 per month, according to the National Rental Report issued last month.

Saving up for a home is also out of reach for many.

‚ÄúIn¬†the mid-’70s, it took the typical young person five years of full-time work to save¬†a¬†20 per cent down payment on an average-priced home. Now it takes 17 years,‚ÄĚ said Kershaw.

Jenny Tan,¬†a¬†city councillor¬†in¬†Maple Ridge, east of Vancouver, is all too familiar with the region’s high housing costs.

She used to live¬†in¬†Vancouver‚Äôs West End¬†in¬†a¬†trailer, an experience that compelled her to get into politics to try to make things ‚Äúa¬†little more affordable.”

‚ÄúI will be super honest, if I had¬†a¬†choice, I wouldn‚Äôt be doing it for fun,” she said.

She lived¬†in¬†her trailer for three years as “cheerfully and optimistically” as she could, equipping it with¬†a¬†projector and hosting board games with friends.

‚ÄúBut¬†look, I wouldn‚Äôt have chosen that if there was¬†a¬†one-bedroom apartment that I could rent somewhere,‚ÄĚ said Tan.

She said she ended up¬†in¬†a¬†trailer¬†in¬†2017 after doing “all the right things¬†in¬†life” by graduating from university and landing¬†a¬†decent job.

With money tight, living in her trailer was better than paying rent. But the downsides outweighed any sense of fun.

‚ÄúLiving¬†in¬†a¬†trailer, you are constantly¬†in¬†fear, stressed about losing your spot, about the bylaw officers,” she said. ‚ÄúFor the years I lived¬†in¬†my trailer, I had no hot running water.”

Tan eventually moved into her parents’ house and considered her trailer life¬†a¬†learning experience. ‚ÄúBut¬†it was not the thing I would have chosen,‚ÄĚ said Tan.

In east Vancouver, Light agrees.

Living in an RV is better than sleeping on the street, but what he really wants is a permanent home.

He said a renter should have to pay no more than 30 per cent of their income to put a roof over their head.

‚ÄúI‚Äôm really, really hoping that I can get¬†a¬†bachelor suite or one-bedroom¬†in¬†one of these subsidized housing units¬†in¬†Vancouver,‚ÄĚ said Light.

He said he spent a year on the waiting list with BC Housing.

‚ÄúBut¬†unfortunately, the only way the places come up are basically when somebody dies. And that’s pretty bad. That’s also¬†a¬†sad thing.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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