Young people face barriers when looking for ways to 'survive and thrive' in Whistler 

Van dweller writes letter to council asking for change

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BRADEN DUPUIS - VAN LIVIN  Alexa Caswell and her partner have been living in their customized, off-grid RV since January, but never had much trouble with parking bylaws until they arrived in Whistler.
  • Photo by Braden Dupuis
  • VAN LIVIN Alexa Caswell and her partner have been living in their customized, off-grid RV since January, but never had much trouble with parking bylaws until they arrived in Whistler.

As an avid climber and outdoor enthusiast, it made sense to Alexa Caswell to "downsize" her life and live minimally in her customized, off-grid RV.

Since January, Caswell and her partner have been travelling North America in search of adventure—but it wasn't until they arrived in Whistler in May that they started running afoul of parking bylaws.

"We've travelled a lot over the last eight or nine months, and this is the only place that we've had this kind of difficulty parking," Caswell said.

"We've met so many other people living in RVs, living in vans, that can't afford housing, or just don't want that lifestyle, which is our situation, but there's no reasonable place to do it permanently."

Instead, Whistler's resident van-lifers spend their time lot-hopping, or parking outside of town and driving in to work, which to Caswell seems unnecessary.

"There's a lot of unused space in Whistler that could be home to these people, but instead we spend our lives basically running from bylaw," she said.

"So to me the solution is to find a spot where we're out of the public eye—the wealthy people that vacation here don't have to look at us, but we can still live and live affordably ... and have time off."

Overnight parking is allowed in Day Lots 1 to 5 from April 1 to October 31 (for a maximum of 24 hours), but camping in vehicles is prohibited. The fine for "illegal camping" is $100 a night.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) issued 451 tickets for camping or living in a vehicle in 2016, 314 in 2017, 904 in 2018, and 335 to date in 2019.

The RMOW said the bylaw helps to reduce wildlife attractants in the lots, and the increase in recent years is due to "additional enforcement resources" being allocated due to the threat of wildfire and wildlife.

"Wildlife attractants are the municipality's chief concern with illegal camping, and Bylaw Services has zero tolerance for wildlife attractants," an RMOW spokesperson said in an email. "The public is welcome to camp in designated areas such as Riverside Resort, Whistler RV Park and Campground, Cal-check Recreation Site and Nairn Falls."

To Caswell, that reasoning doesn't hold up.

"If the issue is food, then why is overnight parking legal, but overnight camping is illegal?" she said.

"That has nothing to do with bears, that has everything to do with you not wanting people to set up camp permanently, because it looks bad, right?

"I'd rather [they] just be honest and say, 'we're trying to uphold an image here, and you don't fit well into that,' because I understand that. But don't [do it] under this guise of, 'oh you attract bears.'"

The two campgrounds closest to Whistler charge monthly rates that are almost equal to what one would pay in rent, she added, and the others (which they do make use of from time to time) are not near any bus routes.

In a letter to council on June 15, Caswell called the parking bylaws "unjust and discriminatory" towards van-dwellers, who are often young members of the working class.

Caswell and her partner work three jobs between the two of them, and while they could afford housing in Whistler if they could find it, they would have no money left over.

"We would have no other money left, just like everybody else in Whistler. You're not here to make money, right? ... But not everybody who's living this way can," she said.

"So I think there's a lot of barriers for people to live in Whistler—financially mainly—and so when you make sleeping in your vehicle illegal, you're saying it's illegal to live in poverty or low income, which is discriminatory."

There are a lot of factors at play when talking about barriers for young people in Whistler, said Jackie Dickinson, executive director of the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS).

"I think, in any community, it's important for us to realize that young people that are entering the workforce and visiting our community are coming with some higher levels of school debt and financial debt due to high costs of education, and so they're looking for ways to thrive and survive in communities," she said.

"I think that people may choose [the van-life] over living in conditions that sometimes prove to be unsafe, unhealthy or unaffordable."

A landlord/tenant relationship is a business, she added, "and it's important to understand that, but what cost does that relationship have on the wellbeing and health of our community if we are charging people beyond what they can responsibly and logically afford?" she said.

"So if it's more than 30 to 35 per cent of their income a month, we're going to see this community struggle, and then we're going to see more barriers to us as a whole community thriving."

Those who are struggling financially see knock-on effects in other areas of their lives, most notably in their mental health—a conversation happening with more frequency at WCSS.

"We're hearing from employers [about] higher rates of mental health issues, and even mental health emergencies, as our housing challenges have become more difficult in the community," Dickinson said.

'We're having a lot of employers reach out to us and say, 'how can I help my employees?'"

Many employers are now going "above and beyond" what they've traditionally done to retain and support their staff, "but there's definitely barriers," she said.

Dickinson said she was encouraged to hear Mayor Jack Crompton tell a crowd of recent arrivals during welcome week last year that, the day they arrive in Whistler, they should consider themselves locals.

"I think those messages are really powerful and they need to continue, because I think people instantly need to feel a sense of belonging," she said.

"If they don't ... they're going to feel that the place they live in is not a good place to live, and then they might confront challenges within their workplace, or be viewed as just someone who arrives here and leaves here—almost like a form of currency, in a way."

That conviction is one Crompton said he holds deeply.

"Because you've lived here for 30 years doesn't give you any special or unique access to community. Whistler is a place that welcomes people regardless of how long your tenure is," he said.

"I agree that affordability is critical for an effective community. It's something that we're attuned to, and focused on addressing."

That said, creating a designated spot for van-dwellers isn't something the RMOW is considering, he added.

"I would say Whistler has just completed an extremely thorough public engagement while reviewing our [Official Community Plan]," he said. "Our community broadly supports focusing our attention on delivering permanent, safe housing for Whistlerites."

For Caswell, the goal with writing her letter to council was simply to start a discussion.

"Right now, it's this counter culture—we're just doing it anyway, and finding ways around it, but no one's really doing anything about it ... I honestly think a lot of the goals are common, but if nobody from the two parties talk then nothing's ever going to change," she said.

"And we're not going to be here forever—no one is ... that's just not Whistler, but I would love to be part of starting a change so that it's easier for other people."

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