Wearing a soft red fleece jacket and tiny gold hoop earrings, Alexi Rainier doesn’t look out of place walking through the Whole Foods in West Vancouver.
“Most of them, I don’t think, have a clue [about my situation] … It would be deadly embarrassing.”
The truth is Rainier is 79 and lives in a van, parked just outside in the parking lot.
Retiree Mrs Rainier, along with her 62-year-old companion Sarah Watson, have been living in the old model Ford minivan borrowed from friends since May. The two women have lived together for the past few years out of necessity.
Their days start early. They wake up between 5:30 or 6 a.m. to go to the bathroom and change clothes, usually at a McDonald’s.
“You have to sleep in your clothes in your van,” Rainier explained. “So if you want a clean piece of clothing, you put it in the bag and then just scurry it like a little mouse across the parking lot to where the washroom is.”
Finding something to eat
Then it’s time to let out their three small dogs, Sophie, Sultan and Qian, and find something to eat.
Sometimes, they come to the Whole Foods café. “If there is enough money and you come in here, you can have nice eggs, toast,” Rainier said.
She likes it here because she used to frequent the store before she was homeless.
She has lived a full life. Born in the Netherlands, she survived the Second World War, moved to Canada, had four children, divorced her husband, and worked as a spiritual healer.
She wasn’t always homeless.
Used to have a home
Mrs Rainier said she used to live in a home in White Rock, B.C., and she met Watson “years ago.” When her friend came to her door seeking spiritual guidance, she took her in.
She describes that home as a “wonderful” place where her friends would often stop by to visit.
Money troubles, disputes with landlords, family estrangements, and unlucky circumstances eventually led them to their current homelessness.
Now the two women rely on Rainier’s old age pension and a small amount from Watson’s Canada Pension Plan to survive.
B.C. seniors advocate Isobel Mackenzie says dire situations like this one aren’t common, but senior women are especially vulnerable to losing housing.
“Overall women have less money, period,” Mackenzie said.
“We know that women are more economically disadvantaged in divorces than men, so part of what you’re seeing in the 65- to 75-year-old threshold is more divorce than the generation that preceded them.”
Pensions, which are calculated on the basis of hours spent in the workforce, put women at a disadvantage because many women take time from work to raise children or didn’t enter the workforce in the first place, she said.
The women’s van is crammed with things. Water bottles, juice containers, and snacks line the floors and bags of clothes and blankets fill the back.
Rainier sleeps upright in the only free seat in the back and Watson, who drives the van and takes care of the day-to-day living, sleeps in the driver’s seat. Rainier says the cramped conditions give her back pain and swollen feet.
“I’m not proud of being homeless. I’m not proud that I allowed this situation myself to be created for Alexi,” Watson said.
Watson described her friend as the kind of person who gave her time unconditionally to others. As a spiritual healer, Rainier ran meditation circles, conducted weddings, and participated in charitable endeavours like distributing food to the needy.
It was not a lucrative life.
“I have a bank account, but I have no more money,” Rainier said. “Any money I had went into surviving. I’m really worried.”
Life in a van is a full-time job. Moving it, finding food, taking care of the dogs, scrounging enough money for gas and food consumes all of their time, Watson says.
No affordable housing
She originally contacted the CBC regarding a protracted dispute with a storage facility — yet another problem springing from their homeless situation.
“You come to a point where you’ve exhausted people and friends. You can’t continue,” she said.
In a city where affordable rental housing is hard to come by and evictions common, Watson says it is difficult to find a place that will take the two women and their three pets.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” she said. “I pray that there might be a solution out there that we can rescue her life back.”
Mackenzie, the seniors advocate, says under the existing seniors rental grant administered by B.C. Housing an applicant must have a rental agreement to qualify — which rules out Watson and Rainier.
Even then, she says the grant is often not enough to cover living costs.
“It’s designed to support your affordability for rent, but only if your rent is $764 a month or less. These women are not going to find a place to rent for that in Vancouver,” Mackenzie said.
She has advocated for the provincial government to increase the rental supplement, but there have been no promises so far.
According to the 2017 Metro Vancouver Homeless Count, seniors aged 55 and over represented 23 per cent of the homeless population compared to 18 per cent in 2014, continuing an upward trend since 2