It doesn't take a professor to point out the many far-reaching impacts Whistler's housing shortage is having on the community. But even outreach workers at the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) were left scratching their heads this week over a troubling trend at the local food bank that can be directly linked to the resort's housing struggles.
August, historically one of the food bank's slowest months of the year, turned out to be one of the busiest on record, with 277 visits, including 60 children. That's more than double the total for August 2015, and up from 194 in July.
"We do know that the No. 1 reason for food-bank use is still illness and injury and tends to be more longer-term locals, but we have seen an increase in new arrivals to town," explained food bank coordinator Sara Jennings.
Over 36 per cent of food bank users in August had been in Whistler for three months or less, compared to the 40 per cent who had lived in the resort for a year or more. Forty-two per cent of users said they were either camping, couch-surfing or in another free-rent situation at the time of their visit to the food bank. Forty-nine per cent of users were renters.
"That's an extremely high camping percentage for us and reflects the housing situation in Whistler," Jennings added.
The figures go to show just how difficult it has become for newcomers trying to settle in the resort, noted WCSS outreach worker Jackie Dickinson.
"Integration into the Whistler community is presenting a lot more barriers, and therefore we're seeing people getting connected to service earlier on in the process," she said.
WCSS has seen a steady increase in demand for all of its social services in recent years — the organization facilitated 500 one-on-one meetings with outreach workers in 2010, for instance, a number expected to climb over 2,000 this year — a trend that is inextricably linked to housing.
"Safe, secure housing is essential to people's health and wellness. So that is concerning," Dickinson said.
Now, WCSS is steeling itself for another busy shoulder season. "We probably anticipate even busier numbers than we've seen come the fall, just in the overall accessing of our services," predicted Dickinson. "We keep thinking at some point this growth is going to end, but I think it speaks to Whistler's need to connect to service and support."
Adding affordable housing inventory is essential to the long-term well-being of the community and its residents, Dickinson said. "We are in a tremendous stage of growth, and with it is the incumbent need for more inventory," she said.
"I'd say, out of the six years I've been doing this, I'm very nervous. We've never been a service that provides housing, we've always been a listening ear, we've always been a referral service and provided food to people and that's what we're going to continue to do, but we're seeing so many aspects of the community being affected by this. I really think it's going to affect the wellness and well-being of this community."
For more information on donating to the WCSS and the Whistler Food Bank, visit www.mywcss.org. Volunteers are also needed to help at the food bank every Monday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 604-935-7717 if interested.
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