I travelled back to my hometown, Vancouver, where permanent shelter still eludes me. Vancouver has approximately 2181 homeless individuals (according to a 2018 report published by Metro Vancouver). Deregulation, speculative and predatory investments, and rezoning have driven many either out of the city or onto the streets. In an age when instability is increasingly the norm, when thousands cross seas and borders in the hope of rebuilding a home, displacement is no longer a disaster viewed from afar. And like Tokyo, Vancouver is a city threatened by catastrophe, “the really big one”, which, according to experts, is lying in wait in the Cascadia subduction zone.
During my month of packing and house-hunting, I took long walks in the city and sought the equivalent of the tent village I saw in Tokyo.
I walked from the east side of the city to the west and tried to trace the line of urban change. One day, while walking in downtown eastside, in a downpour, I saw a lone figure sitting in the torrential rain under an umbrella with holes. He was completely immobile, even as the rain poured down his face. He gazed out across the empty square filled with mud and puddles, though I could not tell what he was looking at. Perhaps he was looking at the man who was pushing a cart full of garbage across the intersection, or the woman who was huddled against the wall of an abandoned building, rocking back and forth, slowly.
On the east end of Hastings Street, there were many cardboard structures, crammed in doorways or pushed up against buildings. These cardboard homes are dilapidated, exposed to the elements, as if the inhabitants wished to construct a signifier of their plight. There were also those who slept in shopping carts or on discarded mattresses. During the day, the homeless sold counterfeit luxury goods and random collection of items for a paltry sum. A few blocks west, trendy cafes lined the sidewalks, alongside shops selling handcrafted leather bags and clothing boutiques that carry $99 t-shirts. Fittingly, in front of a store selling expensive Scandinavian furniture, the displaced made beds outside the windows, gazing in at the luxury interiors.
I kept walking west, then south, across False Creek, all the way to the affluent districts of Kitsilano and Point Grey. Here I admired stunning structures that resembled the fairy tale houses I dreamt of as a child, with sculptural pieces of furniture, expensive art on the walls, and luminous, airy spaces. I have always dreamed of housing. At a young age, I built Lego houses using plastic blocks of red, yellow and blue, elaborate structures with multiple storeys, swimming pools and gardens, and little nooks where the small plastic figurines led interesting lives.
In the prosperous neighbourhoods, with neat rows of autumnal trees, lush gardens partially concealed by tall hedges, I dreamt of moving up from a Lego house to a real house. To admire a house from the outside is to imagine a particular life, not a trouble-free life, but at least one in which the self is sheltered and protected. These houses bear the sign “This is mine”, which the owners – wherever they might be in the world – proclaim to the world.
Elsewhere in the city, Vancouverites protested against the government’s plan to build temporary modular housing for the homeless. Protest signs read “Junkies out”, “Right Idea, Wrong Location”, “Not in Our Neighborhood”. The protesters spoke of unfairness, of the importance of community, of the children who would be traumatized by the crime, drug use and mental illness that the protesters assumed were invariably associated with homelessness. Aside from these anxieties, there were concerns about property value.