Hidden. That’s how I must live these days. Or as one city councillor calls it, “flying under the radar”. My need for discretion lies in my choice of home: A beige minivan called ‘Incognito’. It is like any other van until you peer into the windows. Then all is revealed – a bed, stove, shelves full of clothes and food… My vehicle is my home on wheels which essentially means I rely on public lands. To avoid confrontation, a possible ticket, or risk adding myself to the District’s data of illegal campers, I must escape the watchful eyes of concerned citizens and bylaw. Like most towns these days, relying on public lands isn’t easy. It constantly involves being monitored and displaced. Essentially, I am a thorn in the States side, and they are a thorn in mine.
We didn’t always have to hide. Squamish was once the wild west and we could sleep under the stars without fear. We weren’t viewed as a threat or nuisance. We learned to displace ourselves, moving often to avoid the watchful eyes of citizens and bylaw. But after the Olympics, real estate prices quadrupled as did the gentrification and development. Resultantly, the demographics changed. The class division resulted in vehicle residents being increasingly viewed as jobless freeloaders. In truth, many of us, like most individuals, hold jobs and are contributing members of society. But because of our housing and lifestyle choices we are viewed as “deadbeats”. Or as one woman aptly said: ‘Infiltration.’ In letters to council and on social media, stigmatizing comments about us are common: ‘They don’t even work!’ ‘Look what they did to our lakes!’ One man said that my child was illegally in school because I did not pay property tax. We are blamed for every piece of garbage and defecation, and targeted for using public infrastructure without paying property tax. This stigma is a classic case of “Us versus Them.” After 20 years of mostly vehicle residency in Squamish, I have never felt such division. I work, parent, volunteer, educate myself, and still they assume, judge and stigmatize. My lifestyle has turned into a hiding game. But this is Canada! A country that symbolizes freedom and choice in lifestyle..! Right? Obviously not.
Recently, everything in my life was put on hold to pick up a year old battle that had returned in full force: A bylaw that was inspired by public complaints: a complete ban on sleeping in your vehicle within the District of Squamish. This is the ultimate punitive public policy for people who rely on public spaces. Their reason: ‘Due to covid-19, vehicle residents were a “public health risk” to themselves and the public. They should be directed to low cost campgrounds for proper access to sanitation facilities.’ Taking advantage of a pandemic to pass punitive bylaw on presumptions made with zero research and cases of Covid within the van community. Ludicrous! What about an individual’s values or freedom of choice? I would happily pay for a permit to maintain my freedom over this modern day assimilation, a stale campground and a draconian bylaw. And if that money will help stave off the wolves, even better!
Council received over 65 letters of protest from academics and residents who were more concerned about human rights than how the view of vehicle residents might affect real estate prices. Their efforts at ‘sedentarization’ failed but not without a cost. People on social media were rampant with maintaining our ‘lesser than’ status. Bylaw officers were out in full force for vehicle residents to ticket and displace. The officer who found me was “The Mean One”. She photographed my van while legally parked and doing no harm, yet they ignored the truck parked nearby. This was clearly targeted! I felt so violated! I directed my frustration in an email to bylaw. What was the purpose of this surveillance? Was it complaint driven? Why was my vehicle targeted and not the truck? Will this photo be added to data that will go against me and other vehicle residents?
The years of surveillance and marginalization are frustrating. We aren’t contagious or dangerous. We are not less worthy because we live differently. The District’s failure to settle and legitimize us is because they disregarded the values, desires, and complex reasons why we live in vehicles and failed to present viable solutions. They designed a bylaw based on exclusivity and stigma rather than on inclusivity and mutual respect. The District’s surveillance of public spaces, and using covid 19 as an excuse to legitimize their punitive public policy further marginalizes those who rely on public spaces which is the opposite of progress and kindness. While I understand the need for regulation, so long as one respects their environment, shouldn’t access to public land be a basic right? Shouldn’t the punishment lay on the actual offenders and not the whole? Sedentarism should be on one’s own accord and not because of coercion. A permit system would fit in so nicely here. Stubbornly, I will continue to hide and endure their targeting and marginalization because one day, my van will have a permit which means I paid my dues. Officially, I will belong too.