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Affordable housing on wheels provokes Strathcona debate

Derek Lappano has a decision to make about his unusual Vancouver home: Will he quietly leave town like the others,…

By Kirsty Matthews , in City , on October 19, 2012 Tags: , , ,

Lappano stands in front of his home on Hawks Avenue

Derek Lappano has a decision to make about his unusual Vancouver home: Will he quietly leave town like the others, or stay, despite the cold weather and the cold reception from some residents?

Lappano, a 26-year-old graduate from Montreal’s McGill University with a double major in English and philosophy, moved to Vancouver two months ago. He chose Strathcona, loving the view of the chestnut trees from his new home. But some of his neighbours aren’t so crazy about him. Why? Because he lives in his van.

He is one of many who rolled into Strathcona this summer, parked their vehicles around MacLean Park and never left. “There were at least four or five vans with people sleeping in them at any given time,” said Strathcona resident Julia McKnight.

Neighbours tolerated the newcomers for the first few months, but their patience has worn thin. Dog-owners complained that people were defecating in the bushes and that their dogs were eating human feces. Police have been called in to disperse the informal camper-van commune.

That has provoked a debate in this famously liberal-minded community, with another group of residents saying it’s a hard city to find affordable house, so live and let live — even if it means in a camper van.

Erin Knodel, a barista at the Wilder Snail coffee shop, was baffled to hear that somebody would report the campers to the police.“Why would anybody do that?”

Paola Trevan, a resident in Strathcona for 20 years, was dismayed but not surprised that someone complained.

“Oh, everyone pretends to be liberal in Strathcona. No one will say that they don’t want to see people living in their cars in the neighbourhood. They’ll just quietly call the cops.”

The Thunderbird was unable to find any community residents willing to talk about their objections to the camper vans, although there was no dispute that police had been called.

Lappano said he thought Strathcona would be one neighbourhood in the city where people would understand that, just because someone is living in a vehicle, it doesn’t mean he or she isn’t part of the community.

‘It isn’t a club, its a city’

“It isn’t a club, its a city,” said Lappano. “I’m a member of the community just as much someone living in a house. You’re not living in a house because, for some reason, you rocked at life and I’m not living in a car because I sucked at it.” Lappano, who is looking for consistent work, says he’s saving up so he can afford to pay rent, “There are always circumstances that dictate the way we live. For me, I have massive student debt that I’m trying to pay off.”

In the meantime, he showers at the Strathcona Community Centre, charges his phone at The Wilder Snail coffee shop, and occasionally eats his dinner at The Union Gospel Mission.

“If you have the support of the community around you, then your life is not so precarious and you can more easily transition from a van or a car into affordable housing,” he said.

But the neighbourhood harassment from a different part of the community has made his difficult life even harder.

“When you live in your van, or your car, you’re very vulnerable as it is. You could be towed, your life is very precarious. So when a community is unforgiving and when police enforcement comes into play, then you end up being forced into abject poverty.”

Homelessness bad but “don’t solve it near me”

Lappano and the cluster of campers in Strathcona, although visible, are far from the only ones.

According to the most recent homelessness count in Vancouver done March 2012, three per cent of the 306 people counted as “street homeless” count were living in their cars. However, people living in cars typically try to avoid public notice and, sometimes, public services where counts are done.

But the Strathcona campers are suffering the same fate as other homeless people in Vancouver. Although the public says homelessness is a major issue, people are less willing to offer solutions to it in their own neighbourhoods.

Recent findings of an Angus Reid Poll, commissioned by the Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness found, while most Vancouver residents consider homelessness to be a major issue in the city, they don’t want to see it in their own neighbourhoods. Among those surveyed, 54 per cent said housing in their community should be available only for the people who can afford it.

Those contradictory attitudes are part of what is driving Vancouver’s homelessness and affordable-housing problems, says a woman who has worked in the field for decades.

“If we are not willing to share our neighbourhoods with people who cannot afford market rent, we will not make meaningful headway on this issue as the cost of housing increases,” said Alice Sundberg, who has led recent homelessness counts in Metro Vancouver.

For Strathcona, whose residents are divided about sharing their neighbourhood, that dilemma is real.