Monday, December 24, 2007

Gorge boatman looks to small houses to solve homelessness
Dec. 21, 2007

The turnout isn’t as good as he’d hoped - four people. He’d been counting on 15. But so it goes, and Roland Lapierre isn’t the kind of guy to let a thing like poor attendance get him down for long.
We’re gathered in an upstairs board room at Our Place, where Lapierre is holding forth passionately to a small knot of bemused people from the streets. He’s trying to put together an organizing committee, and so far has three signatures. “It’s dinner hour at Streetlink right now, so that could be why there isn’t more people here,” he tells me.
Briefly famous for the graceful one-man raft he built and lived on for a year in the Gorge; Lapierre is back on land now after being rousted from the water by the City of Victoria. He’s found a room at the Fairfield Hotel on Cormorant Street, but hasn’t given up on his dream of a life far from the streets. “I’m just the kind of person who’d rather live in a forest,” says Lapierre, 56.
He’d called the meeting to gauge interest in his latest plan: little 64-square-feet cabins big enough to house one person. His concept is to have people on the streets build the one-room cabins using donated material, and then to find willing property owners willing to let the cabins be set up on their land in exchange for a tax break.
“You could have a dog. You could have a cat. You could have a house instead of a doorway,” he tells the group. “Some of the houses could be set up in a park, and the people who lived in them could help with park maintenance. It’d be a lot better than living on the street.”
Lapierre has brought a book along - A Little House of My Own: 47 Grand Designs for 47 Tiny Houses - so that people can get a look at what he’s talking about. His favourite is the Cube House, a tiny, perfect cabin complete with bed, miniature kitchen, chemical toilet, and teeny-weeny balcony.
“This has been in Popular Science magazine,” he tells one sceptical fellow leafing through the book. “Popular Science doesn’t publish dangerous things.”
Lapierre has a detailed plan for the project. First, people from the streets will participate in building them, thereby disproving the notion that they “aren’t willing to do anything to help themselves.” Then the little houses will be loaded onto half-ton trucks and taken to whatever properties are available.
“But you’re going to need a social contract with whoever owns the land saying that you’ll be respectful and clean up after yourself and all that,” Lapierre cautions the group. “Don’t bring the cops home.”
The savings begin almost immediately, says Lapierre. The provincial government, for instance, would no longer have to pay the shelter portion of people’s welfare cheques, and could instead invest those savings in building more of the little cabins. Fewer people living on the streets would mean less crime, less garbage, less conflict with frustrated business owners.
In an interview after the meeting, I tell Lapierre I want to play the devil’s advocate, and ask him what he’d say to the doubters out there would likely respond to his idea with a cranky admonition to get a job and pay for his own damn cabin in the woods.
“When I could work, I worked,” says Lapierre. “Back when we were greasing the wheels of industry, who do you think was greasing them? But have an accident and see how long that $50,000 from ICBC lasts. Lose your job, or your marriage. It’s all circumstances beyond our control that puts us out here.
“It’s not our fault that we’re ill. It’s not our fault that the jobs all went somewhere else. I can’t even type with two fingers, so where do I fit in anymore? We’ve left some people out of the formula.”
Lapierre says his cabin concept is his “last kick at the can” before he gives up and retreats to a 40-hectare placer-mine stake north of Sooke, which he registered after scratching together the required $2 a hectare. He isn’t legally able to live there, but does have the right to occupy the land.
As for his fine year afloat in a little bay near the Selkirk Trestle, Lapierre will not soon forget any of it.
“I had breakfast with swans, and lunch with the geese,” Lapierre recalls. “I saw a lot of beautiful sunsets. I met great people. I had quiet waters and peaceful living for a whole year, and that was a wonderful gift.”
But the eviction hasn’t been all bad, he says.
“The boat was like one of those sand mandalas for me - a beautiful thing swept away. I had to say, ‘Well, what good will come from this?’” says Lapierre.
“But when it was over, people - strangers, just walking past me on the street - started coming up to me to say how sorry they were about how it turned out. They’d be passing by and say, ‘Hey! You’re that guy from the boat!’ People showed me that they cared. I’ve never had people care for me like that.”


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