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Squamish Housing Crunch: It is getting even harder to live in your vehicle now

Mayor Armand Hurford says that council is currently trying to make housing more affordable for everyone in the community as Walmart asks vehicle residents to move on from its lot.
The Walmart parking lot. These days, people living in their vehicles can't stay more than a few hours.

Tension has been rising in recent months over the impact some vehicle residents have on the breathtaking Squamish environment around them.

These tensions have reached a boiling point in the Walmart parking lot where until recently, a dozen or more vehicles were camping out nightly, some for months. 

Walmart's lenient parking laws have recently come to an end, with security officers towing people who outstay their welcome. 

A spokesperson for Walmart said that their decision to tighten their rules did not come lightly. 

"Associate and customer health and safety remain our top priority. We've experienced a number of incidents due to ongoing RV or camper overnight stays in our parking lot, which is private property," the spokesperson said. 

"In response, we've made the decision to enforce the posted three-hour maximum for parking. We sympathize with the ongoing housing crisis across Canada and have not taken this decision lightly; however, our parking lots exist for customers' short-term parking needs and are unable to accommodate long-term parking. We continue to approach this situation in the spirit of fostering a safe and healthy environment for all who choose to visit the store."

Pushed out?

Thomasina Pidgeon is part of the Vehicle Residents of Squamish Advocacy Group. She has lived in a van for many years — since she was 19 years old  — and worries that vehicle residents are being pushed entirely out of the village. 

Pidgeon and other group members organized clean-ups of the Walmart parking lot and tried to encourage others to leave no trace. 

"There was a post on 'Squamish Moms.' People were concerned. There was a bit of a mess," she said. "People were also setting up and not moving around. It's not a campground. It's a parking lot. The poster just wanted people to clean up the mess. Everyone in that group was fairly supportive of the District getting inclusive laws for vehicle people. It's not like they wanted us to be out of town. They just wanted the mess to be taken care of." 

Pidgeon said there were lots of different groups of people staying in the parking lot, some far more vulnerable than others. 

"People that are down on their luck and people who are just living in their vehicles while working in town.”
She added that  95% of people that were staying at Walmart were respecting their environment. 

“It's just about the 5% that are giving it a bad name. It's not outdoor people. It's not the climbers or the van lifers. It's the people that are having some issues.”

Pidgeon said many were staying in the Walmart parking lot because they couldn't afford to stay anywhere else. 

"Where do you want them to go? The campground is full. Some of the folks wouldn't even be able to afford them. People should have a bit more compassion," she said.  

The Vehicle Residents Advocacy Group wrote an open letter for the District of Squamish asking the municipality to take immediate action toward an inclusive policy for vehicle residents. 

Pidgeon noticed that one of the signs for the campaign had been torn down off a bulletin board downtown.

Pidgeon's partner, Didier Berthod,  said that vehicle residents feel like there is no longer a place for them in town. 

"The District of Squamish simply does not want people living in their cars. Their vision of harmony is one without vehicle residents. That's a dead one. Whether they like it or not, there will always be people living in their car in Squamish — always," Berthod said. 

The van life tension in town is not just an issue at Walmart.

Not just at Walmart

Bruce Kay told The Squamish Chief that he was physically threatened while staying in his truck on the Mamquam Forest Service Road. 

The 61-year-old said he is unsure if he would camp in Squamish again after the alleged incident on July 23.

"I come into Squamish once every two months or so. I pulled in as normal. A bunch of guys on quads zoomed by. One stopped and immediately started threatening me. He told me I needed to leave. He was actually being really hostile. He was actually grabbing me, pushing me and threatening me with his fists," Kay said. "I didn't get beaten up, but it was close." 

The Powell River resident called 911 and said the RCMP quickly came. 

"I lived in Squamish for decades and even then, I would camp in my vehicle. I made a point of staying out of people's faces. I get the feeling that hostility is rising towards campers," Kay said. 

Sophie Buitendyk, 22, was recently forced to move into a van after not being able to stay in her previous rental. 

The young woman and her partner have been adapting to van life in Squamish. She has also noticed a rise in hostility towards vehicle residents.

"On the Mamquam road, there was this ... driver speeding on the road and honking in the middle of the night. It woke up everybody who was sleeping there. It must have been on purpose. There were honking over and over again. That was the only place we found that was really safe. We didn't choose this," she said. 

Focus on housing

Mayor Armand Hurford said that council is currently trying to make housing more affordable for everyone in the community. Hurford has seen the effects of the housing crisis first-hand. 

"I'm a renter myself. I've lived in four different places since I was elected in 2018. I pay more than double what I started off paying in 2018 for half the space," he said. "I absolutely understand the challenges around rental affordability. We have seen an increase in the cost of rentals in the last few years. We have been doing a lot of work to ensure that we are positively impacting that."

He explained that Walmart parking lot is an example of what has happened in many different areas around Squamish.

 "Walmart being generous in their policies and allowing folks to stay overnight hit a breaking point. This has happened in different areas over time and resulted in the subsequent by-laws. We really focus on areas where there is a risk of a large, negative impact. 1,000 people cannot practice no-trace camping in the same space," he said. 

Hurford said that more camping facilities are needed around Squamish as soon as possible. 

 "We need more campground facilities and I have been advocating for them. That's where our short-term recreational visitors should be. We have been asking the province for years for an increase in campsites."

Help available

Lori Pyne of Squamish Helping Hands Society said that supports are available for those who are struggling to find housing. 

"Homelessness comes in different forms — couch surfing, vehicles, boats — and that while some are living in vehicles by choice, there are a number of vulnerable people with low incomes who are seeking shelter in vans, RVs, cars, boats, etc…. SHHS doesn't differentiate between different forms of homelessness and anyone in need is invited to access services." 

Demand for the foodbank, The Market at Under One Roof, has significantly grown. 

"Where traditionally the foodbank is used for a short period of transition between a job opportunity or an injury, we are seeing more and more people accessing that do have employment, but their housing is costing over 50% of their monthly income," Pyne said.

"There is definitely an impact on our services as people seek affordable and alternative options for housing.  Our transitional housing program is full and the waitlist considering vulnerability, length of time in Sea to Sky, among other things, continues to grow."

*Please note, this story has been corrected since it was first posted to make clear the food bank is separate from Squamish Helping Hands.