Peter Bjarnason shakes his head as he said he’s being treated like a “common criminal” by Surrey bylaw officers for living in his motorhome in Guildford.
Bjarnason is on welfare and said he wonders why the city would want more homeless people living on the streets.
“It’s intimidation. And why? Do they want more homeless people?” he asked, sitting in the Now-Leader office. “The amount of times they’ve threatened to tow it…”
Bjarnason, who described having mental health issues, said he’s been living in the motorhome for the better part of a year with a friend named Joanna. He said they park on various city streets in Guildford.
A few months ago, Bjarnason said bylaw officers came knocking.
“I heard a “bang, bang, bang” while I was laying in bed one day. I thought, ‘I’m not going to answer that.’ Then again. ‘Bang, bang, bang.’ I peeked out and it was a bylaw officer. I thought, OK, at least I know I’m not going to get mugged or killed or anything. So I answered the door and wow, was he aggressive. At the end, I said, ‘Why are you so angry?’ He said, ‘I’m sick to death of playing cat and mouse with you.’”
In Surrey, vehicles are not allowed to remain parked in the same spot on city streets for more than 72 hours. It’s a law that Bjarnason said he abides by.
“I’ve looked it up. There’s no law against living in a motorhome in Surrey,” he said. “It’s getting worse, the threats.”
Bjarnason said he’s happy living in his motorhome, and that “he might as well get an apartment” if he were to consider paying for a spot at a campsite, due to rental rates.
“It’s too expensive,” he remarked.
Bjarnason said he tries to be a good neighbour.
“If we’re doing something wrong, if we’re littering or having parties all hours of the night, then say something. But if we’re not, why not treat us like human beings and work with us,” he said of bylaw officers. “It seems to be when they target you and they get you, they don’t let you go.”
He guessed the last time he saw bylaw was Sept. 11.
For the time being, Bjarnason said he’s found somewhere to park it that’s out of sight, but knows it won’t be permanent.
“They can’t find me now. But it won’t last forever,” he remarked.
“Why do they want people to be homeless? I don’t get it. It makes me want to burst into tears.”
A similar situation is unfolding in Fleetwood.
In July, Fleetwood resident Linda Ypenburg contacted the Now-Leader expressing her frustration over a man living inside an RV – not Bjarnason’s – that had been parked on residential streets in her area for at least a month at that point.
Since July, she’s spotted the same RV in her neighbourhood numerous times, as recently as mid-September.
“Fleetwood never used to have that problem, I don’t know what’s going on. It used to be more in Whalley,” she said. “It just trashes the neighbourhood. They have campgrounds, they could park their vehicle there. It costs money, obviously, but we’re not running a campsite.”
Ypenburg, who is her area’s Block Watch captain, said she’s contacted city hall about the RV but noted there’s only so much officers can do given the existing 72-hour rule on the books.
She wonders why more enforcement tools haven’t been afforded to bylaw officers.
“This isn’t a trailer park. What are they doing with their sewage? I don’t really know what the solution is. I’m kind of beside myself…. I feel for them, I just don’t want them in my neighbourhood,” she added.
Ypenburg said it’s no secret that a lack of affordable housing, in Surrey and beyond, is at play in this situation.
“There’s a shortage of affordable housing so people are left to be living in their vehicles and what was explained to me by the bylaw officer is people who even have jobs are sleeping in their vehicles because they can’t afford to find housing. It’s sad. I don’t know what the solution is.”
The head of Surrey’s bylaw department is aware of both situations, in Fleetwood and in Guildford.
While the issue of people living in RVs and other recreational vehicles has been prevalent in Vancouver in recent years, Kim Marosevich said it is happening to a lesser extent, or at least a less visible extent, here in Surrey.
“I think it’s one of those issues that represents a lot of the struggles we deal with in regulatory enforcement across the city and that being that we have two parties who have different interests and different needs and we have one set of rules,” she said, referring to frustrated residents and those living in the recreational vehicles.
Under the Surrey’s highway and traffic bylaw, a vehicle is prohibited from parking in the same spot for more than 72 hours. But beyond that, Marosevich said there aren’t many enforcement tools at the city’s disposal.
Marosevich told the Now-Leader that the city has had complaints about Bjarnason living out of his RV. She said officers have had conversations with him about 72-hour rule, but have also offered to help connect him to support services.
“We also documented that Mr. Bjarnason indicated that he was looking at a rental, that he was sort of waiting on a location, an RV rental location going back to August,” she said.
“Obviously the last thing we would ever want to see is people in a situation where they were homeless,” Marosevich added. “The city works very hard with our partner agencies to try and ensure that people have stable housing when we receive complaints from residents. We are obligated to investigate those complaints and respond to them. So there are residents being impacted by what’s happening in their neighborhood and we have a responsibility to respond to and connect with those individuals as well. So there’s that sort of balancing act that we’re often doing.”
Marosevich is also aware of the RV in Ypenburg’s Fleetwood neighbourbood.
“We’ve had a few complaints about this particular RV,” she said. “Our officers have attended. We’ve spoken to the individual once, and other times there’s been nobody present in the vehicle so officers have issued a warning.”
“In the conversation one of our officers had, we emphasized the parking issues, but also asked if there are things we can do to help direct individuals – perhaps there’s a campground somewhere that would have water, electrical and waste disposal, all of that.”
At this point, Marosevich said there haven’t been complaints about litter or noise from residents about the Fleetwood vehicle.
Ultimately, Marosevich said “we want to see people in stable long-term housing” and “not driving around the city.”
“I think it’s good for everyone to understand that we’re all people. We all have our own story, so to be able to understand the different sides of the situation,” she said. “My sense is, from reading this (Fleetwood) file, is this isn’t someone who is wanting to cause difficulty for residents, and is oblivious to the other side of the situation, but is really feeling limited. We will continue to have a conversation and emphasize, how can we get you somewhere that’s going to viable for you going forward…. The challenge is it’s likely related to affordable housing in the city, and in the region, really. It’s very much a symptom of the larger issue.”
But, Marosevich said the issue of people living in recreational vehicles on city streets is not a common one for Surrey bylaw officers.
“I wouldn’t call it prevalent, and this is sort of speculation, but some of it may have to do with the fact that we have some larger properties where it may be easier to hide things like an RV,” she added.
“It’s more common for us to encounter properties where people may be living in RVs or other vehicles, which is also not permitted,” Marosevich explained. “We deal with that type of property more commonly. It’s not prevalent, per se, but there are different properties where property may be vacant or semi-vacant and a property owner has people living in different types of recreational vehicles on properties.”
Marosevich noted the city’s response to these cases is complaint-driven.
But, she said, as long as people move their vehicle every 72 hours on public streets, they’re not contravening any city bylaw.