Homeless in Vancouver: Bureaucrats versus the car dwellers on Evans and Glen

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      On Thursday (January 25), upward of 15 parked vehicles—mostly motor homes and camper vans, each serving as the housing of last resort for one or more people—were ordered to be cleared by the City of Vancouver from the elbow of Evans Avenue and Glen Drive. It's a stretch of lightly used industrial road, located a kilometre east of Main Street.

      Thursday morning at 9 a.m., my homeless friend Francis, who had been staying in one of the affected motor homes for the last two weeks, noticed a fellow dressed in an orange safety vest taking an official-looking interest in his and his neighbour’s stationary vehicles. This interest involved tape-measuring the length of each vehicle and then taking photos of everything with his mobile phone.

      When Francis went outside to ask what was going on, the man told him simply that there there had been a complaint and he told Francis: “You gotta go! They all gotta go!”

      By “they,” Francis understood the man to mean the 14-or-so other vehicles in the immediate area that people were living in.

      Like most of the other vehicles, the motor home that Francis occupied had been parked on its spot on Evans Avenue for months (something like five) but he had only been an occupant for two weeks, serving as a sort of live-in guard for the actual owner, who (unlike the other car people) wasn’t homeless. The big RV was parked out of the way on Evans because the owner felt that parking all six metres of it in front of his home would annoy and discomfit his neighbours.

      Francis didn’t explain any of this to the man telling him to move. He just said that he would contact the owner and that the motor home would be moved.

      “That’s what I like to hear,” the man in the safety vest declared, adding: “I’ll be back to issue tickets later.”

      But the fellow did not come back, at least, not before 3 p.m., when the motor home’s owner finally had it towed by BCAA to a new location.

      Who gave the car people the bum’s rush?

      Evans Avenue and Glen Drive showing: 1. park board work yard; 2. Regional Recycling; 3. RV Francis was staying in.

      Francis did not bother to ask which city department the fellow in the safety vest worked for and likewise, he did not wonder who’s complaint had triggered the "eviction order".

      He and the other car people had two big neighbours on Evans Avenue—the friendlier of the two being the Regional Recycling depot, located on the west side of the street. On the east side of Evans, however, was the large Vancouver park board work yard, which was anything but friendly.

      In the two weeks that he had stayed in the motor home, Francis had seen how openly antagonistic park board workers were to the people camping in the vehicles along Glen and Evans.

      Francis told me that on Tuesday, at about 3:30 p.m.—two days before the “eviction notice”—an employee leaving the park board works yard in his van yelled sarcastically out his window as he passed Francis in his motor home: “Nice camp buddy!”.

      And one morning a week earlier, Francis watched someone he took to be a park board employee walk by another car camper’s vehicle, give the nondescript white van a kick, and then yell at the occupant to get out of there!

      I spent some unproductive time Monday (January 29) phoning and emailing City of Vancouver departments, trying to narrow down exactly which  department (or departments) evicted the car people last week from along Glen and Evans.

      Between a City of Vancouver 3-1-1 operator and a park board person I spoke to, I was given to understand that some aspects of parking enforcement were handled by the bylaw department, some by the police department and some by the park board.

      The park board person I spoke to appeared to know what enforcement action I was asking about but she was not cleared to talk on the record. She did insist, however, that Vancouver police had been involved—and that the VPD had a program to deal with homeless people living in vehicles.

      Media contact with the VPD begins with emailing the particulars of your question, along with your deadline. The reply I finally received from the VPD’s media relations officer, Sgt. Jason Robillard, explained succinctly that, to his knowledge, the police had not been involved in the enforcement action and pointed me in the direction of the City of Vancouver bylaw department.

      By that time it was too late in the day to make further inquiries but it seems likely that the threat made to my friend Francis on Thursday morning—to get out or get a ticket—was quite possibly the beginning, middle, and end of the city’s response to finding a group of Vancouverites with nowhere to live but in their cars, vans and RVs.

      If so, it’s unfortunate but not really surprising.

      In the last eight years the City of Vancouver, armed with a great deal of federal and provincial money, has made real strides to end its historical treatment of homeless people as enforcement problems to be either be run off or clapped in jail. There has been an honest effort to put many of the most visible and easiest to find homeless people in government housing.

      Unfortunately the really invisible homeless—the so-called couch surfers—which many experts believe constitute a far larger group than the visible homeless, are still being ignored as if they do not exist.

      And the nearly invisible homeless who have been driven to the bare necessity of living in their vehicles?

      An October 2017 CBC News report speaks of the unknown number of such people left with nowhere to live in Vancouver but their motor vehicles—a number that both the Vancouver police and city social workers believe is growing.

      Yet, says the CBC, the city has no overall policy on how to handle people who are living in their car in a similar way to how other homeless people live out of a shopping cart.

      You would think that the city has some idea of how many Vancouverites are living in vehicles and where—and at what rate their numbers are growing. After all, Thursday’s action to clear 15 of them from along Glen and Evans certainly can’t be the first time, or even the 50th, for city bylaw enforcement officers.

      I want to pause here and point out that not everyone who lives in a vehicle considers themselves to be either desperate or homeless. I know people with good jobs who are living comfortable and considered lives as mobile hobos. But don’t take my word for it, these hobos can speak for themselves.

      Unfortunately, the truly homeless and destitute people living in their cars are often also the least likely to ask for help or speak out. Many are elderly who have retired into poverty and are ashamed of the fact and actually hide, for fear that people will discover they are homeless. Many of them are also afraid of the drugs and violence in emergency shelters.

      It will take sustained outreach and engagement to build trust and create a picture of who’s who among the people who are living in vehicles in Vancouver—who’s young, who’s old, who needs help, and who doesn’t. But is this actually happening?

      As long as people living in their vehicles remain invisible as a group to the wider public, the city—struggling to even deal with the visible homeless—may feel that it can safely turn a blind eye to this hidden human plight and quietly continue to treat it simply and coldly as an enforcement problem.

      I’m sorry to say it but that certainly looks like what the city is doing.