Home on the Road

In my younger days, after working a variety of odd jobs and building up a a bit of savings, I set out with my dog in a little red truck with a cap on the back to travel across North America.  I didn’t really know the term “gap year” at the time, but that’s kind of what it ended up being, tucked between my undergraduate degree, a little more schooling, and a lengthy career as a graduate student.  I enjoyed life on the road, often pulling up and sleeping in the back of the truck at campgrounds and out-of-the-way parking lots across the USA.  I had a campstove for cooking and carried plenty of water.  Whenever I wanted, I could roll out my sleeping bag in the back, with a pad beneath it, and I slept reasonably comfortably.  At least once I was asked to move along by concerned police officers.

Some years later, a good friend of mine took up much the same lifestyle, living out of his van.  But he remained mostly in place, in Seattle.  He did it to save money.  Later, he also lived out of an office space for awhile.  Both arrangements, of course, were illegal according to municipal codes.  We actually  had several conversations (and put together a presentation for a sociological conference) concerning how we understood his arrangements vis-a-vis homelessness.  Certainly most people working homeless counts would readily have counted my friend as homeless (and might also have counted me as homeless had I passed through town during my truck-living days).  Below is the City of Vancouver’s 2016 Homeless Count definition (see here for the last Metro count):

The 2016 Homeless Count uses the same definition of homelessness used in previous City and regional homeless counts. Someone was considered homeless for the purpose of this count if:
* they did not have a place of their own where they could expect to stay for more than 30 days and if they did not pay rent.
This included people who are:
* without physical shelter staying on the street, in alleys, doorways, parkades, vehicles [my emphasis], on beaches, in parks and in other public locations
* temporarily accommodated in emergency shelters, detox facilities, safe houses or transition houses for men, youth, women, and families with children
* staying at someone else’s place (friend or family) where they did not pay rent (i.e.couch surfing)
* in hospitals or jails and had No Fixed Address (NFA)
For example, someone who stayed in a garage would be considered homeless if they did not pay rent, even if they considered the garage to be their home. Emergency shelters are not considered permanent housing, thus shelter clients are included in the homeless population. Someone who stayed at a friend’s place where they did not pay rent (i.e. couch surfer) is also considered homeless as they do not have security of tenure.

Seems pretty clear: living in vehicles = homelessness (especially without paying rent).

So what to make of the many folks who live in vehicles that were built for living?  They don’t fit well into municipal definitions of home, but in many cases they also don’t quite fit our preconceptions of homelessness.   My truck was admittedly borderline, but its little shell had windows and was made to support camping.  My buddy’s van was even better equipped.  Pieces in the Vancouver Sun and the Globe & Mail (the latter by a former student, Wanyee Li), both speak to the attractiveness of these alternative forms of living for some people.  But in many cases, these are folks who straddle the line between homelessness and home.

Strikingly, it doesn’t take all that much more, symbolically speaking, to shove people more clearly into the “home on the road” camp and out of the “homeless” camp.  My wonderful sister and her family (including husband, two girls, and two dogs) recently embarked on an adventure, buying a 31 foot Winnebago Vista.  They were written up, together with two other intrepid families, in this piece in the Baltimore Sun (Permanent copy complete with photos archived here).

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Pretty awesome.  And ok, I’ll admit it: mostly I just wanted to blog about my sister.  But there’s also an interesting point here: I don’t think any observer would reasonably consider my sister and her family homeless.  Yet note how they’re coupled with a family living in tighter and somewhat cheaper circumstances.  Does the boundary grow fuzzier again when we move from RVs to Vans?  Does it matter that it’s a touring van attached to a band?  Or if van residents only become homeless when their vans become mostly stationary, like the one my friend lived in, then how should we think about the greater stability of a stationary residence contributing to a definition of homelessness?

These are all tricky questions, and they occur mostly at the margins.  To be very clear, in raising these questions I’m not doubting the problem of homelessness in Vancouver or expressing skepticism concerning local homeless counts.  We’ve got real problems here.

BUT, all that said, we also have a problem in restricting what we consider decent housing and thereby diminishing diversity by legal fiat.  To return to a major theme: this is a BIG problem when it comes to locking away land for single-family detached houses and such houses alone.  But it’s also a problem when we fail to consider and make room for alternative forms of homes that people might want to try, including life on the road.

The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: available for pre-sale!

Did you know that Vancouver has moved the fastest and the furthest away from reliance upon single-family houses of any metropolis in North America?  Only Montreal competes for the title of least house-dependent.  I have a new book coming out that traces the history of Vancouver’s dramatic transformation and describes its effects on residents, as detailed by interviews with locals. More broadly, the book makes the case that this is mostly a positive development, primarily dependent upon regulatory innovation, that has many lessons for other metropolitan areas across the continent.

The book, The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, hits shelves on October 16th, but I’m happy to announce that it’s now available for pre-sale!  It will be part of the broader series by Temple University Press on Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy.

DeathLifeHouseCover

Click on the image link to see the promotional flyer, complete with a pre-sale discount code!  Please feel free to distribute the flyer widely!  The book is also now available for pre-sale via Amazon (Canada) , Amazon (USA), Bibliovault, and other related book sites, but you may not get the discount via these locations!

Cluttering up the news

Several years ago I got a call out of the blue from Sheila Woody, a UBC Psychology professor, asking if I might be interested in working together on some hoarding research.  Fortunately this came about less due to an inspection of my office and more because she’d stumbled across my research profile and discovered I had an interest in housing and the making of home.  This is one of those collaborations where, even though I found real potential in the research that overlapped with my own interests in intriguing ways, I was drawn to the work in no small part by how much I enjoyed working with the colleague involved.  Sheila and her team (now also including Christiana Bratiotis) are a lot of fun, and I’m delighted to report that some of our first findings are now out and have just been covered by both the Vancouver Sun and the CBC (where they also have nice pictures of Sheila and some team members).

Looking at two waves of inspections data provided by a collaboration with the City of Vancouver, we estimated the prevalence of problematic clutter in the SRO rooms regularly inspected by the City.   We wrote up the results and published them in Housing Studies with the title:

How much of too much? What inspections data say about residential clutter as a housing problem.

.  Here’s the abstract (Full study here):

How big of a housing problem is residential clutter? In this paper, we draw upon inspections data in Vancouver to both estimate the size of the problem and detail how it is observed and constituted through municipal regulatory processes. We contrast the inspections approach to residential clutter with the mental health approach, which focuses on hoarding disorder. Inspections data indicate the problem of residential clutter is potentially larger than might be expected by the epidemiology of hoarding disorder, and also point toward the many risks associated with clutter. Using our best estimate, approximately seven per cent of low-income, dense, single-room occupancy (SRO) housing units inspected were identified by inspectors as problematically cluttered, indicating a sizable problem. Larger buildings and those managed as social housing were more likely than other buildings to have many units identified as problematically cluttered. Strikingly, for given buildings, estimates of problematic clutter tended to remain relatively stable across time, inspector, and inspection method.

The big takeaway for me is that residential clutter is a real housing problem.  That seven percent covers a lot of rooms, creating big headaches for housing managers  and neighbors as well as the residents of cluttered rooms themselves.  Indeed, in some buildings we studied, up to a third of rooms were problematically cluttered with possessions.  It’s not clear that all of this is the result of hoarding as a mental health issue, but it fits with broader evidence of the epidemiology of hoarding.  It also squares with the informal feedback I get when I touch base with many people working in the social housing sector in Vancouver.  Even without prompting, they regularly point to hoarding as a big obstacle they face in keeping people housed and healthy.  So I’m really happy that we’ve put this on the academic radar, not just as a mental health issue, but also as a broader housing issue.  I’m also happy I get to keep working with Sheila and the team toward better understanding what’s going on.

Incidentally, Vancouver’s Hoarding Action Response Team (HART) is broadly recognized as a leading collaborative resource enabled to coordinate responses for those struggling with hoarding.