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'Van life': Local woman seeks city support for unique lifestyle

'What I could comfortably afford was becoming more and more deplorable,' says woman who moved into her cube van amid housing crisis

Faced with increasingly difficult rental situations, an Orillia woman has found an unconventional housing solution that works for her, and she’s hoping city council can make it easier for others to join in.

Since the final day of 2019, Valerie Verhey has been living in her cube van, which she has converted into a tiny apartment on wheels that boasts an array of amenities.

Over the past three years, she has gradually turned it into a functional living space that includes a propane stove, oven and heating, spray-foam insulation, a sink, and more.

“It basically just started out as a luxury tent (with) camping gear,” Verhey told OrilliaMatters. “Over time, I’ve made it really nice and comfortable. I have a proper furnace in there now.”

Although Verhey does not view “van life” as a permanent solution to the housing crisis, it has helped her, at least, escape a string of increasingly untenable rental situations.

In 2018, when the landlord of her previous apartment sold their place and moved back to their home country, Verhey — then a forklift operator in the Greater Toronto Area — was forced to look at other options.

“I couldn't afford just a space on my own, (and) it was definitely going to be some sort of roommate sharing at that point,” said Verhey, 53. “What I could comfortably afford was becoming more and more deplorable.”

She tried a few rental options, including one where, unbeknownst to her, an existing tenant violated a lease by subletting a room to her, and she ultimately began working toward putting her home on the road.

Since moving into her van, Verhey says she has found a new sense of freedom.

“Every time you leave your home, you think, ‘What did I forget?’ But when you have everything with you everywhere you go, (you) could literally pick up and move to Toronto tomorrow,” she said. “I’ve got my house with me.”

Verhey moved to Orillia during the COVID-19 pandemic to be closer to her mother, who lives in a retirement community, and she has found creative ways to get by.

Through the summer, her day pass to provincial parks grants her access to Bass Lake Provincial Park, which offers showers and other basic amenities.

Through the winter, she has friends, and her mother, to help provide those amenities to her.

A major issue across the van life community, however, is finding a place where people can legally park their “homes,” and the story is no different in Orillia.

“In the winter, it’s very difficult because there’s the snow-removal issue, so the city has banned any overnight parking on streets, of course, and in any of their parks, and commercial spaces also have a need for that,” Verhey said. “It’s a bit of a trick to find places.”

She also mentioned police officers, residents, and bylaw officers have inquired about her van and what she is doing, though she has not faced any legal consequences for her cube van.

That’s where Verhey hopes city hall can help.

In a letter to council, she requested the city regulate and permit people from the van life community to park their vehicles in the city.

She provided several ideas in her proposal, including the following:

  • A rotating parking schedule, where vehicles are permitted to park overnight in certain lots throughout the week;
  • Overnight parking at specific parks, particularly in the winter, which generally have their snow removal done earlier in the evening;
  • A stipulation for developers to potentially include van life parking areas, similar to parkland or affordable housing, in their developments;
  • Designating a small number of spots through the city for overnight van life parking;
  • Implementing van life parking permits, which could generate revenue for the city.

Council briefly discussed Verhey’s proposal at its meeting Monday. While it has not yet taken any action, council forwarded the request to the city’s affordable housing committee.

“This housing crisis is so widespread, it would be wonderful to see Orillia be a leader and give it a shot,” Verhey said.

“I think it could generate some tax dollars … by having permits. They could really get a good good buck on that, and if we can show that a model’s working here, maybe other municipalities will consider (it).”

She said regulating van lifers in Orillia could save taxpayer money by reducing wellness checks, for example, and she argues it could bring peace of mind to those living in vehicles and in homes around the city.

“... If someone didn’t know that there was available van life parking, and neighbours became aware, then it’s something that they can direct them towards,” she said.

In her letter, Verhey also made note of her efforts to not only leave the environment around her untouched, but to clean it up, as well, and she said many in the van life community are environmentally conscious.

“They care about where they are. No van lifer’s making trouble where they’re at, for the fact that they want to be left alone to quietly park,” she said.

Verhey, who works as a gas station attendant, said she sometimes runs into people who express interest in joining the van life community, given today’s expenses.

However, the question of parking deters many, she said.

“Parking is that one, really huge, unsettling thing I can’t overcome,” she said.

With the cost of living skyrocketing, she views living in a vehicle as a viable option that can help prevent people from becoming homeless.

“I think part of why I really feel like it’s important for this to be available to people now is because it gives them an option where they might not fall. What if we catch them here?” she said.

“If (people) could see their way to it, they would consider it … rather than fall into depression and worry about finances and so on and so forth. Maybe that’s what leads to addiction. Maybe that’s what leads to health issues, depression and anxiety.”

Although Verhey says she, along with many others living in vehicles, would much rather live in an affordable, safe home, converting vehicles into homes is a viable interim solution.

“Maybe we should consider that, and then (people) have something hopeful and a goal to work towards rather than just continuing on that downhill slide,” she said.

For those interested in learning more about the van life community, Verhey recommends checking out Project Van Life.

She said she has also set up a group called Van Life Orillia on the Nextdoor app.


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Greg McGrath-Goudie

About the Author: Greg McGrath-Goudie

Greg has been with Village Media since 2021, where he has worked as an LJI reporter for CollingwoodToday, and now as a city hall/general assignment reporter for OrilliaMatters
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