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This cluster of RVs parked near Nanaimo and East Broadway is one of several in Vancouver where people are living in their vehicles.

Vancouver van-dwellers ignored, pushed out by proposed city parking policy

A residential parking permit system could have a large impact on the growing number of people choosing to live in vehicles to escape Vancouver’s housing costs.

By Amelia Williams , in City , on February 12, 2021

Paul Wilburn has been living around Greater Vancouver in a renovated van for the past two years. It’s a cheap way to live, and it has allowed him to stay afloat even after losing two of his jobs due to the pandemic.

But living in a vehicle has always come with moments of insecurity, as parking enforcement and attitudes towards van-dwellers shift.

Now, due to a proposed city-wide residential parking-permit system, Wilburn and others like him face increased uncertainty. In order to park in Vancouver, the new policy will requiresall drivers to register for permits using a residential address. For people with no fixed address, that means not being able to buy a permit any legal way, even if they had the money.  

Wilburn said the new rule shows him how out-of-touch city officials are with people who cannot afford to rent or buy conventional housing.

“They just don’t get it. They don’t understand the problem because they don’t live like that. They don’t have those issues,” Wilburn said.

Wilburn said the potential impact of the policy is stressful for people living in their vehicles because most have limited financial resources and no other place to live.

A lone camper van parked at Jericho Beach.

While he has been able to earn some income as a scuba instructor throughout the pandemic, Wilburn said he has met other van-dwellers who struggle to hold on to jobs, have mental-health problems, and others who work full-time but still are unable to make ends meet. 

“They’re tired of it. They’re like, ‘Why should I pay for all of this stuff? Forget it. I’m just going to go live in my car.’ And so that’s what they do. It’s not because they want to, it’s because they have to. And it’s sad.” 

But city officials say they are trying to avoid making life harder for people living in their vehicles.

“We’re trying to find that balance of really helping people find housing and managing the streets well so that they work for everyone,” said Paul Storer, Vancouver’s director of transportation.

Storer said under the new system parking enforcement will not change, and people living in vehicles will be allowed to park overnight so long as it does not lead to complaints from residents or disrupt street management.

However, a selectively enforced parking policy has been shown to create difficulties for vulnerable people living in their vehicles. A recent story in The Tyee found that public disapproval of the Strathcona park homeless camp pressured the city into issuing tickets to RV owners who had been parked in the area for years. Inhabitants no longer had a stable living situation and felt upset and uncertain about their futures.

Jeremy Hunka of Union Gospel Mission also worries about the message the proposed policy sends vulnerable people living in their vehicles, who have unique needs.

“There are a lot of people. If they have to get a new ticket and can’t afford it, or need to get this permit and can’t afford it, might feel like they don’t have a place in the city, might feel like they’re being pushed out of the city altogether,” Hunka said.

“It’s adding another level of complication and of bureaucracy and another step for people to tackle who are already vulnerable and who are already dealing with a crisis.”

Hunka said the fact that the city is asking for public input on the proposal is promising, as it offers people living in vehicles a chance to make their voices heard — so long as the city is willing to listen.

As for Wilburn, he is grateful for that he has the financial security and flexibility to park outside of Vancouver and avoid enforcement officers.

“I just want the world to leave me alone,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a messed-up place and I don’t want any part of it.”