International students facing troubles with homestays
Hostility and insecurity from homestays leave students finding new places to stay
By Jay Schnell and Joyce Liew
A Langara international student found blood drops on the floor, external padlocks on doors and video monitoring upon arrival at their homestay, booked through a Vancouver agency.
Another international student from Indonesia, who went through the Langara Homestay Program, said her hosts left her home alone for a month with their daughter and son, 24 and 19 at the time.
When international students move from another country, often without family or friends, finding a safe, comfortable place to stay can be a gamble, according to some students. The lack of oversight of homestay programs has led to unstable conditions for some who can find themselves trapped in unpleasant, unexpected or even hostile conditions.
Problems with homestay host
The first student, who asked to remain unidentified for safety reasons, booked the homestay last summer through Quality Homestay, a Vancouver-based agency which connects international students with host families.
“The first day that I arrived, there was blood on the floor in the front,” the Quality Homestay student said of the host family’s Burnaby apartment. The student said the homestay host told them the people who lived there before “were crazy.”
Photos taken by the student showed cameras that monitored the premises inside. They said one pointed towards the bathroom and their bedroom door.
“If the bedroom or the bathroom was open then the cameras could see inside,” the student said.
Another photo showed locks on the outside of the doors and notes taped to a wall. One read: “has camera, we can see you, what you doing.” Another note read: “This is not hotel.”
The student recalled a day when they were followed home by a strange man and arrived home in tears. According to the student, host Elizabeth Fernandez poked fun at them, asking, “oh, have you seen your boyfriend again on the street?”
The Voice reached out to Fernandez, who stated she did not have time for students, then abruptly hung up the phone.
The second student, who is named Michelle and has no last name, was initially understanding of her hosts’ extended absence, but soon realized their responsibilities were not being met. She also felt uncomfortable with her hosts, whom she described as often being “mad” at her.
“Their behavior made me stay at school from morning until close almost every day,” Michelle said. “It was awful to bear with the house situation.”
She said she reached out to Langara Homestay Program staff for help.
Talking to Langara’s homestay program for support
Valerie Peters, manager of the Langara Homestay Program, told the Voice they always give students the option of speaking to the host family themselves, or have Langara Homestay intervene. Reluctantly, Michelle chose to talk to the hosts herself because she feared they would get angry with her if Langara Homestay got involved.
“I was too afraid about what they [would] do, given I have no housing options at that time and still living in their house,” Michelle said. “They can do anything to me, anytime, since I live in the house, they provide food, and my room has no lock.”
The Voice asked Peters whether it was allowable for Michelle’s hosts to be absent for that amount of time. Peters initially refused to comment on the student’s case, citing confidentiality but also insisted the student wasn’t “left alone in the house.”
Questionable homestay “business”
The Voice tracked down Quality Homestay, the agency listed on the homestay contract between the student and Fernandez. However, a call to the agency’s phone number went directly to voicemail and the primary email address was invalid and bounced back.
On its website, Quality Homestay in downtown Vancouver states that “we look for homes where a guest will feel welcomed and safe.”
The company’s office on Robson Street was found vacant, with people working in neighbouring businesses saying they hadn’t seen anyone for two months.
Opengovca.com — a site that provides open access to data issued by Canada government agencies — listed Quality Homestays’ status in the 2022 fiscal year as “gone out of business.”
According to the City of Vancouver’s website, “If you have one or two tenants living with you in your house, such as exchange students, you don’t need a business licence.
If you have three or more tenants in your house, you need a general business licence.”
The city does not require host families to undergo background checks.
“Police information checks are not a routine requirement for residential rental type business licences,” city communications said through an email to the Voice.
However, Peters said Langara Homestay Program does require hosts to undergo a criminal record check and students are given the opportunity to evaluate the host families.
Koji Miyaji, the city’s assistant director of community standards and licensing, said the city oversees business licences but not specifically to homestay programs.
“The homestay program itself I believe it is not regulated,” Miyaji said.
Peters said Langara Homestay Program is not licensed because it is a service provided by the college, and not an independent business.
Kimberly Liu, operator of Homestay Vancouver, said it is her agency’s responsibility to maintain quality and check in with hosts and students frequently.
Liu said it is very important that the agency maintains an active relationship with the host families.
“I visit every host family that registers with me,” she said.
Claire Thompson, the city’s manager of proactive enforcement, said the provincial government is responsible for tenancy regulations.
According to the B.C. government, the Residential Tenancy Act “does not apply to living accommodation in which the tenant shares bathroom or kitchen facilities with the owner of that accommodation.”
Michelle said her talk with the host family made the situation worse and her family eventually flew in from Indonesia to help her find a new place to stay.
The Quality Homestay student also sought a new homestay.
Their new homestay “seems really cool,” they said. “They’re so nice to me.”