By Robert Mangelsdorf
For two weeks this past July, while I attended a summer grad school program at UBC, I slept in my van.
Having recently bought a camperized Honda Element, and looking to save money as a result of having recently bought a camperized Honda Element, I decided to forego the pricey on-campus accommodations. I grew up in Metro Vancouver, so sleeping in my van seemed like a wonderful way to reconnect with the hometown that I miss so dearly (and save a much-needed buck while I was at it). Like many Vancouverites in recent years, I had to leave my hometown for a more affordable corner of the province—in my case, Vancouver Island—to find work and start a family.
After consulting the great tomes of wisdom that are Reddit and Facebook, I decide to make the parking lot at Spanish Banks my home for the duration of the program. Here, I was assured, I would likely not be disturbed. Plus, there were washrooms nearby.
Technically, camping in your vehicle on most city streets in Vancouver isn’t illegal, but it certainly isn’t encouraged. Cause a nuisance, I was warned online, and I could variously have to deal with parks employees, bylaw officers, the police, or—worst of all—uppity neighbours.
After staking out the three-kilometre section of beach, I decided to set up camp at the nearly empty western-most parking lot. I watched the sunset from my lawn chair, blissfully enjoying a cold-ish beer, thrilled to be back in my hometown.
With darkness fallen and the bongo drummers and acoustic guitarists mostly gone from the beach, I retired to the pop-up tent on top of my camper van. A few hours later, instead of preparing workshop notes for the next day’s class, I was watching videos of people deep-frying things that should clearly not be deep-fried when a loud rap on the camper’s fibreglass roof startled me.
“We’re closing the gates! You need to leave!”
I opened the zipper of the tent and stuck my head out, coming face to face with a quasar-strength flashlight that instantly atomized my retinas.
“Park rangers! You need to leave! Now!”
Seeing stars and half asleep, I crawled out of the tent in my underwear and drove the van, pop-up tent still extended and flapping violently in the wind, down the beach a few kilometres to park on the side of the road. Here, dozens of other vans had set up camp for the night, wisely avoiding the park rangers clearing out the gated parking lots, which are apparently closed and locked every night at 11 PM (according to the sign that I didn’t see until I drove by it the next day).
In the morning, I woke to find that my plug-in cooler had been left running all night. I put the key in the ignition and turned it, but was met with troubling silence. Not even a half-hearted whimper of the engine struggling to turn over, or the ominous clicking of the starter failing. Just…silence.
It was clear I would not be attending my morning keynote lecture.
I called BCAA and soon my hero in navy blue coveralls, Larry, arrived to rescue me from my chronic absent-mindedness.
Larry got a lot of calls from people camping in their vehicles, he told me. “This is the safest place in the city to camp,” he said. Under the First Street viaduct, things were a lot more dangerous. He told me about a time when he attempted to help an elderly woman whose key wouldn’t open her RV for some reason. Larry jimmied the door open to find that a half-naked man had barricaded himself inside. The man screamed like an animal and lunged at Larry, who swung a tire iron to keep him at bay, before he scampered off into the night.
“Be careful out here!” Larry said cheerily.
Over the next few days, I settled into a rhythm of camping near Locarno Beach and showering on campus at the student rec centre.
Some, like myself, or the young German couple in the $200,000 Mercedes Sprinter 4x4 with a penchant for loud, frequent sex, were camping at the beach for fun, for adventure. However, I came to learn, most were not.
Andy became a frequent neighbour of mine, parking his rusted GMC Safari next to my van most nights. Andy was a carpenter, specializing in high-end interior finishing. Until Covid. Because he was unable to enter people’s homes at the height of the pandemic, work quickly dried up. He started doing exterior work to pay the bills, but fell off a ladder and injured his back and his knees. He’d been battling worker’s comp ever since, working small jobs here and there as his health allowed, and now walked with a cane that he carved himself from a piece of driftwood.
He has lived in and around Kitsilano since the early ‘80s—since he first came to Vancouver from Ontario. His first apartment, on Vine, cost him $200 a month back then. Now he was spending more than $1,200 a month just to live out of his van. Food was the biggest expense. Without a kitchen or a fridge, he ended up eating a lot of fast food, and it was not cheap.
“I’m 63, so my pension kicks in in a couple years,” Andy told me. “The second it does, I’m out of here.”
Andy said he plans to move to Thailand or Vietnam, where he can afford to not be homeless.
“I love it here, I love Vancouver,” Andy said. “But it’s impossible to live here anymore.”
He’s far from alone. According to recent estimates by homeless advocacy groups, there are currently hundreds of people—most of them gainfully employed, tax-paying citizens—living in their vehicles on the streets of the city.
For many working people in Vancouver, where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is now more than $2,300 a month and a full-time minimum wage job nets just $2,200 per month, basic, stable housing is simply not attainable.
And so, every morning, dozens of working folks emerge from their vans, their trucks, their cars, and into the daylight, lining up at the Spanish Banks East and Locarno Beach concessions to use the toilets and outdoor showers before heading off to work. Meanwhile, looming high above the beach sit sprawling multimillion-dollar mansions—symbols of wealth and excess, many of them dark and empty.
Many of the people I met worked in the trades. The perpetually shirtless Michael had a pitbull and Bible scriptures tattooed to his ribcage. He told me he worked as a general labourer in construction at a site downtown, helping to build the city skyline that loomed large in the distance. He and his dog slept in the back of his pickup truck every night, next to his tools, because he wasn’t able to find a pet-friendly place to live that he could afford.
He, too, would like to be anywhere else. To have a home. To have security.
“It’s not so bad down here,” Michael told me. “But yeah, I’d love to have my own place. Who wouldn’t?”
At the end of my two-week program, I packed up my van and headed home. I took the ferry back to Vancouver Island and returned to my 800-square-foot house, to my wife, to my children, and slept in my bed having concluded my quaint little beach camping adventure.
But others stayed, and not by choice. They had no home to return to. They remained there, washed up on the beach, like so much driftwood in the sand. Discarded and forgotten by the city they helped build.