After eight years of living in tents, a car and self-built buildings in BC and Alberta — and being on BC Housing’s shelter waiting list for over a year — Philip Hathaway and his wife moved to the seaside.
“I said you know what? They don’t want us in the parks, we don’t have a place to live… I’m building a boat,” said Hathaway, 53.
As of June 2021, the couple have been living on a Hathaway-built boat with a base of blue recycling bins bolted together and filled with plastic bottles, covered with a layer of old freeway signs to keep it afloat.
He first set up a two-person tent on top of the structure for him and his wife Sonja to live in, but has since replaced it with a more durable plywood A-frame hut.
He built the boat, which he dubbed The Blue Dream, in Goldstream Provincial Park near Langford, BC, a suburb of Victoria. He then drove it down the Goldstream River to the Saanich Inlet and from there steered the boat with a five-horsepower motor up the east coast of Vancouver Island to Campbell River – a journey of around 250 kilometers.
The boat came as a last resort for the Hathaways, who felt they had exhausted all legal avenues to find shelter.
Hathaway says he filled out an emergency shelter application in April 2020, but months later he was told he had to reapply because the paperwork was lost.
He says he and his wife lived in their car for the next year. Their car was impounded seven times after which they gave up trying to reclaim it and instead lived in a tent on the shores of James Bay in Victoria.
The whole time they’ve been waiting for a call saying a dugout had become vacant – but Hathaway says it never came.
Sonja, 39, is now pregnant, which makes finding a permanent home more urgent.
“The demand for housing far exceeds the supply”
The couple are not alone in their struggle to find affordable housing on Vancouver Island.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reported in February that the vacancy rate in Greater Victoria was 1 percent, down from 2.2 percent in 2020. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Greater Victoria was $2,098, according to the report last month rental.ca.
“Demand for housing far exceeds supply across the province, including in Greater Victoria,” BC Housing said in a statement to CBC News.
The provincial housing agency says its filing for Hathaway’s application will begin in March 2022, adding that his previous request may have been directed to a not-for-profit housing provider in Victoria.
“It is difficult for us to predict how long Mr. Hathaway and his wife will be waiting for accommodation,” the statement said.
Hathaway says he’s owned a home twice in his life. He inherited an estate that was sold and divided between his siblings and later bought a home in Nanaimo, BC with his first wife, which was sold during their divorce.
After that, he says, it was difficult to regain the financial security he once had.
Stigma, fear of theft
Hathaway says life on the boat has allowed him and his wife to explore the beauty of Vancouver Island’s coastline.
He says they eventually settled in the Campbell River Estuary after discovering it gave them relative privacy from authorities and would-be thieves.
But he said they’ve also faced stigma from communities where they’re docked or being treated like a spectacle by tourists who don’t seem to grasp the seriousness of their situation.
“I built this boat for survival,” Hathaway said. “No man or woman should have to do that to find a safe place to live.”
While they have relative freedom on the boat, it’s also isolating, says Hathaway.
For fear of theft, the two rarely leave their boat. From where they docked their boat in the Campbell River Estuary, it takes 2.5 hours to walk into town, and throughout the journey, Hathaway couldn’t shake the fear that his boat might not be there, when he comes back.
Because of this, they wash their clothes on the boat and generally only leave for meals from the local board or for Sonja’s prenatal appointments.
“It’s a constant struggle every day to get water just to shower,” Hathaway said.
Even if BC Housing offered them off-island accommodation, they would accept it, he says.
Hathaway doesn’t hope to draw more attention to his case, but rather to the issue of affordable housing in general.
“This was decades ago and will take decades to fix. But in the meantime, there must be solutions that people can use so that they can actually have the semblance of life,” he said.
For him, a home is a legal place for his baby to run around. Failing that, he plans to further expand his boat.