In Vancouver, you pass the homeless on the streets. Desperate, dirty, unfortunate souls sleeping in doorways and bus shelters, unsure of their next move, hoping that something changes to make their world a little better.
In Whistler, the homeless come to your door. Clean, educated, full of energy and with a job, or at least the prospect of employment, they are nevertheless desperate for a place to live.
It’s not a wholly legitimate comparison, of course. Most of the homeless in Vancouver, or any other major city, are people with few options and in need of all kinds of help. Most of the homeless in Whistler can go somewhere else if they have to; they have a choice. That is a huge difference if one is looking at degrees of “homelessness”.
It also touches on one of the most important points to remember when analyzing Whistler: virtually everyone who is here is here by choice. It’s too expensive, too difficult, too frustrating to stick around if you don’t like this place, so everyone here has made the choice to stay, at least for a while. There aren’t many places in the world that can say that.
That is what makes the story of Whistler’s homeless a tragedy. It’s on a different level than the story of the homeless in most big cities, but it’s Whistler’s tragedy.
Over the years much has been written, in this space and in others, of the need for employee housing in Whistler, the obstacles to creating more of it, and the consequences if we don’t. It’s a topic as old and as tired as they come in a ski town.
In the last year too, much ink has been spilled and many trees sacrificed in the hopes of creating awareness and understanding of the labour shortage that has hit Western Canada hard this year, and will affect all of Canada in years to come. Through good planning and diligent work by a number of people and organizations, Whistler seemed to have dodged the labour shortage this winter. Turnout to both Whistler-Blackcomb’s and the Whistler Employment Centre’s job fairs last month exceeded expectations, and the jobs available.
But now the housing part of the equation may be nullifying the good work that went into recruiting employees for the winter. There are reports of people with jobs leaving town because they can’t find an affordable place to live. And for the first time in nearly a decade, there are people going door-to-door inquiring if anyone has or knows of any accommodation. In the Dirty ’30s people went door to door looking for work; in Whistler in 2006 it’s accommodation that’s precious.
The valley is always full of optimism and anticipation in November as the snowline works its way down the mountains, and never more than this year. After a record summer and a solid season last winter, Whistler is on the rebound. Advance bookings are up, value is on everyone’s mind, the seasonal labour shortage appeared to be thwarted and Whistler Mountain opened ahead of schedule. Even at the local political level, there is a new energy that is being coordinated and channeled effectively. And people seem generally satisfied with the council’s first year in office.
But this council also has to deal with opportunities lost by their predecessors, one of the most significant being insufficient results on the affordable housing front in recent years — a period that saw Whistler’s employee needs expand with the opening of several new hotels.
There is more employee housing planned; when it becomes available is another matter. If history is any indication, diligence on the housing front can never be relaxed.
In the meantime, the last few weeks have seen discussions of “scum” landlords and home-wrecker tenants. The municipality is now providing information about tenants’ and landlords’ rights and responsibilities. But the evidence suggests the main issue is simple arithmetic: there is not enough affordable accommodation.
Which leads to the question: Can Whistler ever provide enough affordable accommodation, and should it? It’s a fair question, one that should be considered in the context of development in the valley, in the context of customer service.
And it should be kept in mind when the knock on your door is from someone who has traveled half way around the world to spend a few months in Whistler and is now ready to give up the dream and go home. That is more than just an employee who can’t find a place to live. That’s another opportunity to tell Whistler’s story lost. It’s another employee successfully recruited and then abandoned. It’s Whistler shooting itself in the foot.