Wheels of fortune: Life in Lot 4
Living in a vehicle is necessary lifestyle for long-term Whistlerites
By Chris Woodall
Winter's damp cold and the threat of eviction or being towed away has become a way of life for Whistlerites living in vehicles in day skier parking Lot 4.
There can be anywhere from six to 30 people living in the parking lot at a given time. But the Lot 4 residents aren't all hard-luck transients, Melissa Hood is firm to say, although she acknowledges there are some who might be.
"A good handful choose to live in their vehicle. There's a freedom to move where you like and it's not as material a lifestyle: you don't need as many things," Hood says. "I didn't feel I was in a fringe group or living an alternate lifestyle."
For Hood and some other Lot 4 "residents," living in a camper van or converted school bus is the only way to get ahead financially to that magical point where a down payment can be made on permanent accommodation.
Lot 4 residents are another factor in Whistler's ultra high cost residential housing scene.
As for law enforcement officials, handing out 72-hour eviction notices is an unfortunate situation for both the police and the vehicle occupants. As a result, there's a careful ballet between officers who have to enforce the law, and the Lot 4 squatters.
"It's a real informal thing," says Cpl. Darryl Little of the Whistler RCMP. "Everyone's aware of (people living in Lot 4)."
Technically, there is no overnight parking allowed in the day skier lots bordering Fitzsimmons Creek because it is a flood zone, Little says. But the police try to be lenient by instead enforcing the Motor Vehicle Act that decrees vehicles can't stay in one place for more than three days.
"We don't want to be the Grinch," Little says. "We try to be the mediator here and arrive at a happy agreement for everyone."
There are few places the vehicles can go, forcing the owners to hide out on someone's driveway or in another parking lot before sneaking back onto Lot 4.
"It's unfortunate we don't have a camp site here," Little says, noting that one of the problems with allowing overnight camping in Lot 4 is the lack of washroom facilities. "It would be nice to have a big lot, charge a minimum fee and have washroom facilities for them. Not everyone can afford an expensive hotel room."
In the summer when Whistler Kampground was in operation, the police could be stricter about moving overnighters because there was somewhere nearby to send them. Now the only choice is to go to the Cal-Cheak recreation site some 20 kilometres south of Whistler.
The efforts by police to go easy on the Lot 4 "neighbourhood" is appreciated by some of the residents.
"I'd have to say I'm really grateful that we were allowed to stay 72 hours at a time," says Melissa Hood, who converted 1960 half-size Bluebird school bus with her partner Ryan Leitch. The bus has an electrical generator and bathroom facilities. Both work at Plaza Bistro restaurant. She's a hostess and he's a chef.
"We tried to move every time they asked," Hood says of shifting to another parking lot when the knock on the door came. "They were nice with us and said they didn't mind playing parking lot tag with us."
Although now recently moved into a studio apartment paying $820 a month, including utilities, Hood and Leitch had been living in the camper bus for a year. "We would like to buy our own place, but we can't get ahead" because of the rent, Hood says.
It was the rent issue that prompted the four-wheeled home life. "We were being caught in the rental thing and wanted to do something else with that money. It was an adventure to live in the bus, but it turned out to be cool," Hood explains.
Locking the gate on the Whistler Campground without plans for a replacement somewhere else is disappointing, says Hood. "There doesn't seem to be a place in the municipality's agenda for us. I just wish there was a choice of places to live (in rental accommodation), but there's too much 'not in my backyard'."
After a while, a sort of community develops among some of the Lot 4 residents, Hood says, explaining how a group try to park together and share communal duties such as grounds clean up.
Hood has called Whistler home for six years, working in a variety of restaurants and in retail. The woman with vibrant blue eyes and earth-dark red hair also spun the wax at the Savage Beagle bar as DJ Groove Child.
"This winter we asked some people if we could rent their driveway, but that didn't work out because we didn't want to cause problems for the tenant's neighbours or landlord," Hood says.
Tammi O'Neil considers herself to be one of the lucky ones in Whistler. She camped from May to October, but was able to sell her camper van and move into accommodation rented from her employer, where she works as executive chef.
"When you're paying $500 a month in rent and another $500 for vehicle payments and insurance," living in a vehicle became an attractive alternative, O'Neil says.
Her inspiration was Charlene Hansen, sous chef at Plaza Bistro.
Hansen has been calling Whistler home for seven years. She moved into a '79 Chevy raised-roof van originally just because it was a place to live where she could keep her dog. But life in a vehicle begins to pale the longer the winter hangs around.
"I'm getting sick of it right now," Hansen admits. "I'm tired of going from someone's place for a nice hot bath, to my cold van. It was fun at first, but not now."
The cold was what prompted Hood and her partner to move indoors. "Sometimes I would think that heat would be nice, especially this year with the cold temperatures."
Although both Hood and Hansen have dogs, living in a van can sometimes be a bit scary. "I'd get scared once in a while: if someone bangs on your door and you’ve got to open the door to see who it is."
All three can understand why the enforcement officers have to move everyone out if there are complaints about people urinating or defecating in the washroom-less parking lots, but they say it's the day skiers who are usually the culprits.
"It's pretty pathetic seeing skiers stand outside their car door having a pee," Hansen says. She's especially critical of skiers who've had a few beers and are too stupid to use the bar's washroom before going to the car.
Hansen's goal is to save enough for the down payment on a house. Some day.
"It's hard to put the money together when you're getting laid off twice a year," Hansen says.
But she has been constantly at it and says that several of her fellow camper residents have the same ethic. "There are lots of people like that. Some people you can call skids if you want: some are on UI and there's the hippy kids, but there's others here like me. I didn't come here to ski, I'm here to work."
Hansen feels she is on the verge of having that down payment, too. "I hope it'll be this year, but I want to have the place of my dreams and I probably won't find that here.
"Just because you have a job doesn't mean anything," Hansen says. "It's too hard to get ahead."