Living at a rest stop

A resident of a Fraser Valley rest stop resident explains how he and his neighbours came to live at one of BC's increasingly crowded highway rest stops.

The Cole Road rest stop in Abbotsford.

Scattered around the brightly lit parking lot at the Cole Road rest area sit about a dozen RVs, box vans, and other fifth-wheels.

Chris, 43, lives in one of them. The rest stop is historically reserved for weary drivers on long trips, but to Chris and the others living there, it’s home.

Chris has lived at Cole Road since last July, although he only purchased his trailer before the cold hit last fall. Before that, he lived in a tent with his dog, Axel. Sometimes his then-pregnant girlfriend would stay with them, too. While Chris’s trailer might not look the best on the outside—there are tarps secured to the roof and a few of the windows have been covered to keep out the cold—he says the inside is definitely livable.

The occupants of the other vehicles, whose ages, he says, range from their 30s to early eighties, live in similar conditions. Chris said that many, including one 60-year-old woman, work full-time jobs but live without heat or propane in their trailers. Others are retired, like one person who relocated from Montreal and has lived at Cole Road for more than three years, Chris added.

“People can’t afford the lifestyle of living in a condo or apartment at that age,” Chris said. “It’s like they get forgotten.”

Overnight camping at these rest areas is not technically permitted. This means that Chris and everyone else living at Cole Road and other rest areas, like that in Bradner, are at constant risk of being evicted and having their vehicles towed.

While the province is aware of the increasing number of encampments, they have yet to evict most of those camping at the rest areas. The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure says they are working with the Ministry of Housing, local outreach programs, and the City of Abbotsford to ensure a humane solution to the issue.

For individuals who have been priced out of the rental market, the rest areas provide a respite from the elements and more dangerous homeless encampments in Abbotsford.

“Out here I can focus on my mind and not worry about outside influences,” Chris said about the benefits of living in such a remote area. Others, he said, feel the same.

“When you're 60 years old and you're barely making a go, at least with a fifth-wheel you don't have to deal with all the people that are part of society.”

During Chris’s first few months at the rest area, no one would talk to him. Now, he tries to help out where he can, like picking up groceries for some of the older adults when he’s at the grocery store. Others help out, too: Chris said he wouldn’t have acquired the trailer if it weren’t for some of the people he and his girlfriend met at the rest stop who offered them their extra trailer for cheap.

The area, however, isn’t completely free from crime. Chris said that just a few weeks ago, he was attacked by someone who tried to steal his dog. He and his girlfriend have also dealt with online harassment and have had issues with people passing by the area who have thrown garbage at them.

“To be in a tent with a pregnant girlfriend, with people staring at you, driving by, fingering, and throwing garbage at you. It's pretty degrading.”

Since giving birth in December, Perlick’s girlfriend and infant son have moved into a transition house in Chilliwack. Chris visits when he can, but says the child isn’t allowed back to his trailer.

Even before moving to the rest stop, securing housing had been a complex endeavour for Chris and his family. Most recently, he lived in a tent in the backyard of his mother’s home in Abbotsford. He said he stayed there for about 18 months before a fire broke out last June.

So Chris and his girlfriend moved on, at one point paying $2,800 for a room at the Travelodge in Abbotsford. Chris said they stayed there for less than five days before moving out to Cole Road.

As an interior painter, he says he’s seen firsthand how the economy contributes to the lack of housing. Without a physical address, Chris said he has been unable to replace his missing ID or apply for supports like income assistance. The $600 he does receive for hardship assistance isn’t enough to cover market rents in the Valley.

“I feel like I’m just existing,” he said.

While Chris and his girlfriend have recently applied for subsidized housing, they may still face a waitlist of two or more years before they’re able to secure a permanent unit.

“I don’t understand. Nobody's willing to give a person a chance just to live. How are we supposed to build a family when we're being told that it's not good enough?”

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