Torched camper raises new concerns about Vancouver's RV-living community

Advocates for Vancouver’s precariously housed population are raising new concerns after a camper vehicle went up in flames on Thursday morning.

It happened about 3 a.m. on a stretch of Malkin Avenue commonly known as “produce row.”

Assistant fire chief Kevin Wilson with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services said no one was at the camper when crews arrived, but that it is being investigated.

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“It was completely destroyed, the vehicle. There were no injuries. It is under investigation because it is just a little bit suspicious,” he said.

Wilson said such camper fires are not common, but they are not unheard of either. Last year, a homeless man died in Surrey in a camper vehicle after it caught fire due to an electrical malfunction.

It’s not clear that the camper that was destroyed on Thursday was being used as a home, and Vancouver police were not immediately able to provide any details about the status of the owner.

However, produce row is one of several Vancouver industrial areas popular with people living in campers and RVs.

WATCH: (Aired Nov. 9, 2018) Housing crisis leaves many homeless living in vehicles in Metro Vancouver

The city doesn’t track exactly how many people are living in campers or cars, and they are often lumped in with the annual homeless count. There are approximately 2,500 people living on the street, according to the city.

While some businesses and neighbours have expressed frustration with the campers, the city says its policy is not to ticket or tow people living in vehicles.

However, illegally parked vehicles are still subject to bylaw enforcement, and the city says it also deploys outreach teams and can engage in social housing intervention if appropriate.

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Jeremy Hunka with the Union Gospel Mission said the housing crisis is pushing more and more people into precarious living conditions such as tents and vehicles, which often leave them facing safety hazards.

“When people are in a tent and they’re cold or they need light, sometimes they just light a candle, and that can have devastating consequences,” by starting a fire, he said.

“Or else you have a heater that’s giving off dangerous fumes and can either catch fire or poison somebody.”

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Those are concerns shared by newly elected Vancouver City Councillor Pete Fry.

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Fry campaigned on creating sanctioned camping areas for tents, cars or RVs, and has expressed interest in a model used in San Diego known as the “safe parking program.”

He said he’s asked city staff to look at the concept, which involves creating sanctioned areas for people to sleep in their vehicles, along with resources and support, and admits the early indications are that it’s not a perfect fix.

“They did find that their preference is for people living in cars because people who are living in cars, they can make that outreach and they can move them into permanent homes,” Fry said.

“Whereas people who are in Winnebagos are actually pretty comfortable and they don’t want to leave.”

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However, as a neighbour to the popular camper area in Strathcona where the fire occurred, Fry said he’s still interested in looking at the idea.

“I think there is an opportunity to explore maybe some triage measures to stabilize people, get them just safe,” he said.

“Having access to water, having access to toilets, having access to social services, and when it gets cold, getting them access to heated areas.”

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From Hunka’s perspective, it’s an idea that’s at least worth looking at.

“Given the scope of the crisis, innovative solutions and new thinking is necessary to solve some of these problems,” he said.

“That can’t be the end solution. The end solution needs to be actual affordable and dignified housing. But if there is a transitional period or innovating thinking around that kind of thing to help people in the meantime, that’s something that should be considered.”

Fry said he’s expecting a report back from staff on the “safe parking” idea in the next several weeks.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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