Banff, Alberta. Located in one of the most beautiful areas in Canada. People come from all over the world by the bus loads. There is money being made for sure. Nothing wrong with making money, right?
The hotel industry does alright. I perused hotels there via Expedia and most of the rooms available were $400 to $500 per night. Then there’s all the restaurants and bars, the tourist shops, art galleries, the rafting experiences, horseback riding, and on and on.
Life is good in Banff. Good for business people. Good for visitors who can afford to be there. But what about the workers at the clothing stores, or at the restaurants, or the ones who clean the rooms at the $500 per night hotel?
Josh Smith moved to Banff a month or so ago because of the abundance of work there. He moved all the way from the east coast. He landed a job right away as a clerk at a retail outlet, making $15.00 per hour.
Let’s make sure that sinks in. A young man wanted to go to work so badly he travelled across the country to land a low wage, retail clerk’s position. Industrious. Committed. The kind of young man I would hire.
One problem, though: Josh is homeless.
Banff has a zero-per-cent vacancy rate. Josh has done some couch surfing but doesn’t stay long out of courtesy to his friends. He just can’t find a place he can afford. According a CBC report (sources below), he is willing to pay up to $800 per month, but there is nothing at that rate that is decent.
“Some people want $1,000 to share a room with. That’s going to be drinking all night, partying — because it is a party town. If I’m going to work 10,12 hours every day, I don’t want to come home to a roommate in the room who is just drinking.”
So, a young man willing to work long hours for what clearly is not a living wage in Banff, Alberta is left to camp out illegally or spend the night tippling coffee at the all night McDonald’s (when does he sleep?).
Josh is not alone. In July of 2016, officials with Banff National Park reported knowing of 230 illegal campsites in the area, more in those seven months than the entire year of 2015. It’s risky camping out like that because there are wild animals in the forests and hills. Park officials also noted the risk of having to pay up to $5,000 in fines for being homeless in the national park.
Josh has to use public washrooms to attend to his basic needs. According to him, it’s a common thing to see at public washrooms. “I bet money someone is washing their hair, guaranteed,” he says. “Every time I go, there’s a buddy brushing his teeth or washing his hair. Or he’s got the wet paper towel and he’s wiping down his body. It’s like, yeah, everyone is in the same boat as me.”
There is something wrong when workers, who are essential to the economy in Banff, can’t find affordable housing and in order to maintain their low paying jobs have to resort to what amounts to illegal behaviour.
Creating more affordable housing in Banff is a challenge beyond what most communities face. Because it is located in the National Park, all land is owned by the Federal Government. The municipality is subject to the National Parks Act. In other words, developers (whether for-profit or non-profit) can’t develop as easily as they might in other cities and towns where they can actually purchase land.
City council is trying to address this issue. They are dealing with illegal Airbnb listings, as it is illegal in Banff to rent out residential homes for commercial reasons, without a permit. I found that interesting. The potential of earning revenues through Airbnb likely surpasses what can be made renting out a room; so this just adds to the affordable housing crunch. People can make more money off of tourists than the workers who support their economy.
As well, town Counselor Grant Canning reported that 130 affordable housing units will be built in 2018. Given the number of illegal campsites and the unknown number of workers living in garages, at illegal camps, or couch surfing, who knows what kind of dent that development will make in the overall housing problem. Nevertheless, it’s progress.
This is an example of a social problem (homelessness) being a structural problem, not one to be blamed on Josh and others like him. It’s complicated for sure. It’s about how the economy is structured, people’s incessant drive to make more money, and the laws and regulations that have helped to create and exacerbate the homeless problem in Banff. It’s also likely another example of income inequality, where those making money are primed to make even more, while the Josh’s of the world make low wages and live illegally in one of the most beautiful places on the continent.
Is Josh discouraged? No doubt, he has his moments. Despite the unfairness of his situation, he remains committed to staying in Banff.
“I know with enough determination I can make it out here,” he says. “I want to be better off when I go back than I was when I came out.”
Going back east is not an option for him. That suggests life back home is even worse than in Banff for this hardworking, homeless young man. That’s likely another story and one I bet you is rooted in structural causes of poverty, unemployment, and lack of housing.