Vancouver has always had a shortage of affordable housing, but only in recent years has this translated into considerable numbers of homeless people forced to sleep in alleys, on sidewalks, and in whatever nook or cranny they can find throughout the city. City politicians have rightfully argued that the root of homelessness is the unwillingness of the provincial and federal governments to build social housing. But on the other hand, Vancouver civic governments have done their best over the years to eradicate alternatives that the homeless have found for themselves. Historically, this has included everything from the hobo jungles of the 1930s to caves near Siwash Rock in Stanley Park. In more recent years, the 1990 Francis Street Squats, the 2002 Woodsquat, and last year’s Oppenheimer Park tent city are examples that show that when it comes to evicting squatters, the City pulls out all the stops even if it means aggravating the homelessness problem.
From the 19th century until a few years ago, boathouses were a common form of squatting in Vancouver. One of the City’s first anti-squatter campaigns was in the summer of 1894 when a cluster of floating squatter shacks, a “rancherie,” in Burrard Inlet between Hastings Mill and the Sugar Refinery was destroyed and its residents evicted. Sheriff Hall and a posse of 25 men tore down 27 shacks the first day, and vowed to keep working until the inlet and False Creek were free of squatters.
Residents of the rancherie were understandably upset by the eviction, and some did their best to drive off the sheriff and his men. The World newspaper reported that a “muscular colored gentleman” known as King Bill was “very noisy” and threatened the posse foreman’s life, but eventually desisted. One “shackite,” as the paper called them, allegedly said that “houses would burn in the city because of the destruction of the shacks.” Another evictee, Frank Merrill, was charged with unlawful assembly for throwing rocks at the posse. “This he freely admitted,” according to the News-Advertiser, “but alleged that he was half drunk and only threw his rock after seeing others do likewise.”
An elderly shackite complained to a reporter that “we made this country ready so that the North American Chinamen from Canaday could come into it and now they are turning us out of our homes.” The World characterized him as one of the more respectable shackites, but claimed that most of the others were “bad Siwashes and klootchmen, and worse whites who consort with them. The place has been a constant trouble to the police and a menace to society, disgusting sensual and drunken orgies, followed by brutal rows, having been of frequent occurrence.”
To pacify the troublesome shackites, arrangements were made to put “a number of houses and lots on the market in the East End, which will be sold on monthly instalments” well below market rates and with down payments that were “within the reach of everyone.” Where exactly in the East End is unknown, but it’s tempting to think the displacement of the shackites led to the creation of Hogan’s Alley.
Despite the evictions, squatters returned to the foreshore. A 1911 article in British Columbia Magazine reported that numerous people were making their homes along the southern edge of Burrard Inlet between Coal Harbour and the Sugar Refinery. This motley assortment of squatters included a Japanese named Giki, a Siwash named Nook, a Punjabi named Jann Singh, Fung Kow, the Pekinese, Rocambeau, the ear-ringed French seaman, Olaf, the son of Olaf, Dirk Bolt, a tattooed Englishman, a Dutchman named Hans Blamm, and Jake Dogg, the harbour pirate.
One trait these float-dwellers did seem to share was a reluctance to talk to nosy magazine writers. “The waterfront amphibian,” wrote the British Columbia Magazine journalist, “is a man of much reticence, he can be silent in two languages – Chinook and coast English.”
Some were seniors who found the waterfront the best available option for living out their twilight years. Others were sailors down on their luck. One man explained that he lost his last ship to a foreclosure, and was left with “no earthly possession but a shirt and a pair of pants with a hole in them” before winding up in the harbour. A retired plumber named Thomas Marshal lived aboard a houseboat at the foot of Denman for decades until his death in 1938. He was the unofficial “Mayor” of the squatter colony, and his boat known as “City Hall.”
Some harbour-dwellers worked at regular jobs, and even British Columbia Magazine admitted some were quite “respectable” if not clean shaven. The police seem to have left them alone, but better off Vancouverites nevertheless regarded the squatters with suspicion, assuming they supported their lazy lifestyle through thievery.
Squatting continued in False Creek for well over a century, thanks in part to confusion over jurisdiction, which in 1996 included the City, the Province, Ports Canada, and the RCMP, as well as a safe-haven provision in the Canada Shipping Act. The catalyst for change was entirely economic, though it was often expressed in terms of pollution and safety. In the mid-1990s, there were concerns that congestion in False Creek was about to explode because the City was planning 12,500 new condo units along the north shore. Mega-developer Concord Pacific was planning to open three new marinas, which planners estimated would mean 1,000 new boat berths. False Creek squatters were about to become victims of Vancouverism.
City Council struck a “water opportunities” committee comprised of stakeholders and with Councillor Sam Sullivan as the chair. Kayakers complained about “big booze cruises,” while representatives of the “growing harbour-tour industry” cried foul at the suggestion of limiting their use of the creek. Police bemoaned “boaters who buzz around the creek” and who weren’t “required to have licenses or know the rules of marine travel.” Tourism Vancouver didn’t even bother marketing to boaters anymore because there was nowhere for marine tourists to park. Sullivan discovered that “there’s so much confusion, even with people responsible for the rules” that no one was enforcing the rules on False Creek. But despite all the conflicts between the different types of boaters and the pending onslaught of marine tourists and newly arrived yachters, it soon became clear that this was a campaign aimed at kicking out the squatters.
A Vancouver Police count of squatter boats found 44 vessels, but that number bloated to 80 or even 100 in other estimates. All kinds of allegations were made against them. They were freeloaders who didn’t pay taxes; they were responsible for the high coliform count in the water; they would get in the way of the Dragon Boat races; and so on. A member of the False Creek Residents Association was miffed when the fire department told him that propane tanks aboard a houseboat would only pose a fire hazard if they were onshore.
A group called the False Creek Mariners formed and attempted to defend the squatters from the barrage of allegations against them. Numerous possible factors were contributing to the high coliform count, for example, and the City’s engineering department confirmed that it was only speculation that the squatters were one of them. Most of the boats had sewage holding tanks and squatters often used facilities onshore. In 2005, the general manager of the Dragon Boat Festival said the issue of houseboats impeding the races was “a bit of a non-story from our point of view” since squatters were happy to move their vessels for the festival’s duration.
After years of lobbying, the City finally negotiated a deal with the federal government to evict the False Creek squatters as of 1 August 2006. “Vancouverites have been taken advantage long enough,” Sam Sullivan told the media. Under the new rules, houseboaters could get free permits that would only allow them to stay 14 days out of 30 in the summer and 21 out of 40 in the winter. Other options were to pay upwards of $500 at a marina, provided any empty spots were available, or to leave False Creek altogether.
After the 1 August deadline, the City seized five boats that had been abandoned. The City’s tenant assistance coordinator, Judy Graves, was working to try and find subsidized housing for around 10-15 low-income and disabled squatters, but said the City wasn’t providing them with any financial assistance. The police were gearing up to slap a $500 fine on two remaining squatters. “I don’t want to grab somebody and say ‘we are going to toss you out on the street,’ said Sgt. Neil Gillespie, “but we can’t leave it forever.”
For more on Vancouver’s houseboat squatters, see Rolf Knight, Along the No. 20 Line, [PDF] chapter 7.