Amid a Real Estate Crisis, Is Boat City the New Tent City?

When you’ve turned an abandoned boat into a makeshift home without that marine know-how, you may find yourself (sometimes literally) up a creek without a paddle.

As much as you might want to consider yourself a free spirit, we would wager that a leaky boat probably wouldn’t make it onto your list of dream homes. But with 4,000 people on BC Housing’s wait-list (despite a $3.1-million commitment to keeping temporary winter shelters open for a full year), abandoned vessels actually look like a pretty good option to enterprising members of Vancouver’s “unsheltered” population, who have had to take what they can get—even if it means looking off land.

Metro Vancouver first included live-aboards in its annual homelessness count in 2017. According to this winter’s count, less than one percent of unsheltered residents are living on boats with unpaid moorage, though it’s an imperfect figure, as many who live on boats do not self-identify as homeless. However you rank it, for the Coast Guard and Transport Canada, who deal with the downsides of this creative housing solution, it’s still too many.

“The numbers are very high now,” says Captain Susan Pickrell, superintendent with the Coast Guard. She should know: her crew are the ones called when life at sea goes south, intervening when boats in disrepair are found illegally tied to mooring buoys or when vessels get stuck on the water without propulsion mechanisms or active bilge pumps. (This last mechanical failure isn’t just an issue for the residents of the boat: a City of Vancouver investigation into the water quality in False Creek suggests that a primary contributor to the alarming E. coli levels in everyone’s favourite kayaking spot is sewage dumping from live-aboards and pleasure craft.)

It’s not like these are the first people to eschew a landlocked lifestyle, but generally the live-aboard community has been made up of mariners—those who have boat experience and expertise, who know how to care for the vessels properly and anchor them in safe locations. But when you’ve turned an abandoned boat into a makeshift home without that marine know-how, you may find yourself (sometimes literally) up a creek without a paddle

In Vancouver, for example, you’ll find groups of boats are anchoring outside False Creek and off Kits Beach, which may seem like an idyllic alternative to shelters or SROs, but for the inexperienced captain, “when an easterly wind comes, that’s the worst possible place you could be,” says Pickrell. “That’s how you end up with boats hitting the shore, and why abandoned and derelict boats are significant on this coast.” So significant that the Port Authority’s Fraser River Improvement Initiative spent $2 million over the past five years to help clean up derelict boats on the Fraser River alone.

Pickrell is superintendent of the Coast Guard’s Vessels of Concern division, which formed in 2017 in preparation for Canada’s new Wrecked, Abandoned or Hazardous Vessels Act, which is set for legislation in June. It’s a bill intended to give the Coast Guard authority to clean up the estimated 1,000 derelict vessels polluting Canadian waters (up until now, it actually hasn’t been illegal to abandon your ship, apparently) but because many of these vessels have been turned into homes, the cleanup may have the unfortunate side effect of displacing a vulnerable population. 

It’s not the goal to evict people from their makeshift shelters, but derelict boats can create hazards for both the environment and for humans. There are the pollutants on board, which can end up in the water without proper care, and when bad weather comes sweeping in, liveaboards wind up needing the Coast Guard’s help. Though it’s not a statistic the Coast Guard currently keeps, “when the winds are over 30 knots, you end up with the vessels with the poorest conditions ending up on the beach or running into trouble,” says Pickrell. “Whether they’re on board or the vessel ends up on the beach, it’s putting our rescuers at risk.”

The new act gives the Coast Guard the ability to apply “whatever measures necessary” to reduce harm—it will make all vessel owners accountable for ensuring their craft are not hazardous, not abandoned, not derelict or dilapidated. Though live-aboards may not be bothering anyone with their makeshift homes, when the Coast Guard is faced with an environmental response situation and can’t find the actual owner of the boat (“Oftentimes, live-aboards are there via a handshake agreement because the boat has no actual value,” says Pickrell) there’s nothing to do but tow, leaving, as Pickrell says, “our most vulnerable in the most vulnerable position” with either fines to pay (for individuals, that fee can climb to $50,000) or a sudden lack of shelter. 

In principle, the policy is to work collaboratively with the occupant as well as the community, and doing everything possible to ensure a happy ending. “The Coast Guard is going to take whatever measures we can to try to ensure the safety of the people who are on board,” says Pickrell. “We’re going to have to work with the local community to help them find housing.” But the fact of the matter is that the Coast Guard is trained in enforcement, not social work. Are they really the right people for the job?

During engagement sessions with the public, it’s clear some communities see this issue differently. For some coastal towns, reclaiming this dock space can be not just about the “eyesore” effect, as the Georgia Strait Alliance so delicately put it, but about economics—the re-establishment of fishing marinas. The City of Victoria recently chased a community of live-aboards out of the Gorge Waterway last year; farther down the shore of Vancouver Island, there’s the infamous “Dogpatch” in Ladysmith, a cluster of ramshackle boats that acts as a floating camp for those seeking shelter, which the community has eyed warily for years. That area remains a contenious source of public debate.

The majority of people, says Pickrell, “are very respectful of the fact that these people are marginalized and many of our most vulnerable are living on these vessels. But at the Vancouver meetings, we encounter the people who want us to deal with this and get it off the water and let it be someone else’s problem.”