We need to stop harassing people who’re sleeping in their cars

Ticketing car-dwellers just shuffles the problem around

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photo of living equipment in the backseat
It’s a symptom of a much larger issue. PHOTO: Mitchell Hartley, Pexels

By: Nercya Kalino, Staff Writer

Everyone needs a place to rest. We’re all leading busier and busier lives, and need time to recharge. The problem is that not everyone has enough money on hand to get a roof over their heads, particularly in Vancouver. Enter, the problem of having to sleep in your car. And while I don’t see the harm in someone having a car to sleep in when going through a hard time, that’s not a widely accepted position. That’s not to say that squatting is something that we need to embrace, but we do need to acknowledge that sleeping in cars is often a last resort and a terrible symptom of a much larger problem.

Just last year, the City of Vancouver demanded 30 RVs parked near East 12th Avenue and Slocan Street vacate the area or face fines. Taryn Scollard, Vancouver’s director of streets, said of the encampment that officials had been “seeing a lot of increased concerns in the area as the number of RVs increase,” which in turn demands increased bylaw enforcement. Across the Strait of Georgia, the Victoria Police have spoken out against relaxing car-sleeping rules. Police issued the statement when the Mayor and a city councillor proposed relaxing bylaws to prevent tickets from being issued to people sleeping in cars parked on the street should the city’s vacancy rate dip to 3%. The acting Victoria police chief said at the time that the police need to have the “discretion” to deal with people sleeping in their cars. 

But you don’t need discretion. What we all need to do is reflect on the societal failures that leave people no other option than to live in their cars. If we’re not willing to do that, then the very least we could do is stop criminalizing people’s living spaces as a last resort. 

The problem is bigger than we think. According to the CBC, Metro Vancouver’s 2017 homeless count found 58 people living in their cars across the region. Peer-Daniel Krause, who managed BC’s 2017 homeless count, suggests the 58 people figure is a “vast underestimation” of the number of people who live in their cars. 

There are any number of reasons why a Vancouverite might turn to living in their car. We know, for example, that the housing market in BC continues to prohibit stable living situations, from ridiculously overpriced housing, to the gap between wage-earning and the municipal housing cost for rent and buying. There are huge problems preventing Vancouverites from affording a home. Sleeping in your car gives people, at the very least, a modicum of personal security that sleeping on the streets or in shelters can’t provide. 

Instead of policing people sleeping in their cars, we need to express compassion for their impossible situation. But beyond compassion, meaningful policy adjustments are needed. There’s the small stuff, like allowing people to stay overnight, in cars, in public parking lots. But the larger solution is, of course, tackling a dearth of affordable housing options in Vancouver. People want to live in cities. Tackling zoning laws that prevent multi-family complexes might be a good place to start. 

Enforcing bylaws on car-dwellers doesn’t solve the problem, it shuffles it, temporarily, out of sight. Car-dwellers are a natural outgrowth of the housing issue. They are not to blame for their circumstances, and shouldn’t be harassed by overzealous bylaw or police officers. Instead, we need to realize that antagonizing people who already have it hard enough is plain out not okay, and start chasing meaningful reforms to housing and work that make our cities affordable again.