Whistler finally has a better grasp on the homeless population living in town.
Based on a 14-hour study done on April 20 from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) now puts the number of homeless at 15 people. But there's more to it than just the number.
"Even though we came up with a number, which was 15 in that 24-hour period, our homeless don't look like the classic homeless population that you'd see in other communities," said Cheryl Skribe, WCSS's executive director.
"A lot of these people didn't actually see themselves as homeless, even though... on that night they met the definition of homeless."
Of the 15 captured in the one-day study, five were classified as chronically homeless — living outside for one year or more and viewing Whistler as their home-base community.
Many of the remaining ten were living in cars, about half of them working full-time or part-time but unable, or unwilling, to pay rent.
Key findings from the $10,000 study included statistics showing:
• 40 per cent were between the ages of 18 and 25;
• 53 per cent were working full-time or part-time;
• 53 per cent cited the high cost of rent as the reason they were homeless;
• 46 per cent were sleeping in their vehicle, 39 per cent were in a makeshift shelter.
"We have a number now, and whether or not you like that number, it doesn't really matter because it's based on a province-wide accepted definition of homeless and methodology about how you determine that in your community," said Skribe. "And I think that was important because we needed to be able to benchmark that against other communities, but also for us to benchmark into the future."
WCSS was galvanized into action this year in response to ongoing concerns in the community about how many homeless were living in Whistler and what was being done to help them.
"In our opinion, from the definition, we see these as potentially a vulnerable population of people," said Skribe. "Based on where they fall within the spectrum, we want to make sure that they understand that support is available."
On a personal level, she was on the front lines of the study on the evening shift, accompanied by a young man who has been living on the street for many years and who was willing to shed a light on the community."It was very humbling, a very enlightening experience for me," she said, of her time walking the beat. "It helped me understand that sometimes we want to provide help in a way that doesn't make sense for the people who are receiving the help."
The numbers, however, reinforce the status quo and WCSS will continue delivering its services as before, providing 24-hour access to transportation to the emergency shelters in Squamish, and food through the Food Bank, blankets and socks at the library, and one-on-one advocacy, among other things.
The study did not take into account the so-called "hidden homeless" or those people who are couch surfing, temporarily staying with friends or relatives because they have nowhere else to live and no immediate prospect of permanent housing.
According to a recent national study The State of Homelessness in Canada: 2013 there is no reliable data on the hidden homeless at the national level and very little at the community level.
A Vancouver study put the number of hidden homeless at 3.5 people for every one homeless person.
That would put Whistler's number of "hidden homeless" at more than 50 on any given night. It is, said Skribe, a "very challenging demographic to capture."
Armed with the report, WCSS will continue business as usual.
"At this point we don't really see anything changing (in terms of support)," said Skribe.
"There's not going to be a shelter any time soon. We've got a shelter in Squamish, it's not being used 100 per cent. There's not going to be a shelter in Whistler."