Category Archives: Affordable Housing

Working yet Homeless in Banff, Alberta

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, 22, homeless worker in Banff, Alberta. Photo credit: Falice Chin/CB

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.



Note:  In addition to writing about community change and penning commentary, I am a story teller. I write fiction and spoken word. This piece is a mix of fact and fiction, often called “faction.”

One of my small luxuries in life is having someone come to my house weekly and clean it. I tell myself I need this service because I am so busy, but truth is it’s a luxury for me. I can afford it and to be honest I have the time to take care of my own mess; I just hate doing it.

Karen is the one who takes care of this for me. She is 24 and nearly always cheerful. She does an excellent job and in good time as well.  She is a friend of a friend and when I heard she was interested in providing this service, I decided to give her a go.

When I asked her what she charged, she asked if $15 per hour would be okay. I had two reactions to her question. One had to do with her proposal representing a great deal. If I were a business I might have equated her wage request as a way of minimizing the cost of her labour on my bottom line.

But I am not a business. I am just a guy who dislikes doing his own housework. My second reaction was the stronger of the two. I told her I would pay her $25 per hour. In my mind, anything less seemed, not enough. I was asking her to clean up after me, wash floors and tackle the mess of bathrooms.

Karen wasn’t yet 21 when she gave birth to her daughter, Millie. Neither she nor her boyfriend, the father, wanted to get married. In fact, I got the impression Karen was close to breaking things off when she found out she was pregnant. He was a decent enough guy, she told me, but they really didn’t click enough to see a future together.

Shortly after Millie was born, Karen applied for an apartment through the city’s Subsidized Housing Program, which bases rent on income. She wasn’t making much money and couldn’t afford a place on her own.  Despite having a high school education, she couldn’t find a decent paying full time job. So, she ended up working retail or at fast food places, none of which provided full-time hours, much less a living wage. And, to boot, none of the jobs she found offered benefits.

Please don’t slide over the obvious here. Let’s remind ourselves that businesses do this on purpose and with purpose. The structure their workforce to avoid providing benefits to their employees. One of these employees is Karen. She is smart enough to know what was really going on. She told me once, “I am just a commodity.”

Five words that offer a simple yet brilliant analysis of how the power of wealth and the addiction to wanting more has stripped away workers’ humanity. I wanted to tell her I was going to quote her in a story or a blog posting, but I checked myself. Continue reading LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY

More about the Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction

As some of you know, I have written about and I am continuing to work on what I call a Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategy and Evaluation. You can read my initial paper HERE. And a recording of a webinar I did with Mark Cabaj is HERE.

I have been asked about the difference between Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) and this game-changer approach I am working on with my colleagues at Vibrant Communities Canada. The game-changers we have identified are Housing, Transportation, Education, Health, Income and Jobs, Food Security, Financial Empowerment, and Early Childhood Development. All of these are aligned with SDoH, but there is, I suggest, more to what we are exploring than social determinants of health.yes-and-no

The Game-Changer Approach also is stressing the importance of avoiding the creation of “thin” strategies among a host of other “thin” strategies that, in effect, can lead to an overall poverty reduction strategy that is a mile wide and an inch deep.

The notion of prioritizing our efforts is one that is often accepted as necessary but in practice not emphasized. One of the fundamental tenets of the Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategy and Evaluation is rooted in an old Taoist saying, For every yes there is a no. Continue reading More about the Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction

Affordable Housing is a solution not a problem

The City of Edmonton has launched a new website about the need for more affordable housing located across the city in order to ensure that all citizens have a safe and affordable place to live.

When people have to spend too much of their income on housing, they are forced to let other things go. Often they have to reduce the quality and quantity of their food, for example. They may have to reside in run down housing operated by uncaring landlords, which can pose safety and health risks. Fear for one’s children’s safety can keep kids from participating in recreational activities. In extreme cases, people end up losing their housing and end up on the streets. The average costs of a homeless person in our community is around $100,000. That’s what it costs to feed, clothe, shelter and attend to the health and mental health issues of one homeless person.

Contrary to what people tend to believe, affordable housing initiatives do not have a negative impact on property prices, and there does not appear to be any correlation between affordable housing and crime rates.

While the city website is silent on other needed housing types like supportive and supported housing, this is a very good beginning and hopefully is one more tool in the community’s tool box to use to foster more interest and acceptance of affordable housing in all neighbourhoods across our fine city.

Visit the site at

The site’s short video is below: