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‘A long-held dream’ come true: Safe housing now available for women in Whistler

Major donation allows Howe Sound Women’s Centre to purchase townhouse
women's safe house
Women fleeing abuse in Whistler have the option to seek shelter in their own community thanks to a generous donation.

Finally, women fleeing abuse in Whistler have the option to seek shelter in their own community. 

The Howe Sound Women’s Centre (HSWC) recently established a temporary safe-home program utilizing unoccupied short-term rentals, and also managed to secure long-term, affordable second-stage housing— in the form of a newly purchased townhouse— to support the needs of local survivors of gender-based violence. 

Both the safe house and the second-stage housing were a long time coming, explained HSWC executive director Ashley Oakes. For years, women escaping violence in Whistler had to travel to Squamish or Pemberton to access safe housing. It was a hurdle often made insurmountable by factors like employment, children’s schooling, and transportation options that, in many cases, left survivors and their children stuck in dangerous or difficult situations.

“There was no emergency housing in Whistler of any kind, and it was a massive gap in service that we’ve been trying to address for years, and all within the span of a couple months, it came together,” said Oakes. “We are only hoping to be able to expand it from here.”

The HSWC was able to purchase the two-bedroom townhome that will now serve as second-stage housing in August, thanks to an “unparalleled” $800,000 donation from part-time Whistler residents the Janzen family, coupled with $140,000 that was previously donated by Clasina Van Bemmel for this purpose in 2015.

“It was actually because of an article in the Pique that this all came together,” said Oakes. “I was interviewed back in the spring regarding housing needs in Whistler, and a local donor read the article, was motivated to support us. [The Janzens] reached out directly to me after reading that article and essentially bought us a townhouse outright.”

Oakes called the generous gesture “a career highlight,” in terms of fundraising. “It was amazing,” she added. “Having that kind of a donation handed over and entrusted with us was incredible.” 

The first tenant moved in on Sept. 15. 

Lease agreements for this type of housing typically cover a one-year period and are “hyper-affordable,” said Oakes. HSWC’s new townhome, for example, is being offered at a monthly rate of $1,200. The fully furnished home allows families to live independently, but offers easy access to HSWC’s services. 

Second-stage housing generally serves women, children and their pets who are either moving out of transitional housing or safe housing and in need of longer-term accommodations, or who are struggling to gain access to market housing and are in need of support in order to take that next step. 

But for those in need of that initial emergency safe housing, there’s also good news. A $200,000 grant from the Union of BC Municipalities recently provided to the Resort Municipality of Whistler is funding a pilot project that will see the HSWC operate a series of safe homes in unfilled Airbnbs and hotel rooms across the resort. The initiative began this month and is set to run until July 2022. 

The Whistler Safe Home project addresses increased demand for emergency short-term housing by offering stays up to one month, and also aims to gain insights and data about the need for such shelters in Whistler beyond the grant funding’s mandate.

According to the HSWC, the RCMP has reported an increase in domestic violence calls over the past year, while the centre itself has housed individuals escaping domestic violence throughout the Sea to Sky corridor for nearly 1,400 nights. Earlier this year, Oakes told Pique that, anecdotally, 40 to 50 per cent of HSWC’s calls come from Whistler, but said that hasn’t translated to the numbers seen at their Pemberton or Squamish transition houses.

Whistler’s new safe home pilot project doesn’t necessarily have a capacity limit, said Oakes. “We could house multiple people at a time because we’re using a variety of locations and sites,” she explained. “Our hope is that we would be housing upwards of 30 folks through these next few months—it’ll all be based on need and demand, but we intend to be able to meet the needs of anybody that calls and wants to stay in Whistler.”

With reduced capacity at its existing safe and transition homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, the HSWC has already been accessing what it calls “expansion sites” through hotel accommodations across the Sea to Sky over the last year, with support from the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation.
Now, the HSWC is advocating for long-term funding that will allow a safe home to continue to operate in Whistler once the current pilot project ends in July, Oakes added.

“We’re also looking at ways that we can support either access to existing affordable housing units in Whistler, or expand our housing stock in Whistler to be able to provide that housing,” she added. “That will be something that we continue to prioritize.”

The HSWC also recently launched a 24-hour mobile sexual assault response team in an effort to meet the needs of sexual assault survivors at any time, at any location within the Sea to Sky corridor, Oakes said. 

Women requiring Howe Sound Women’s Centre services can call the 24-hour crisis line at 1-877-890-5711. For emails and a full list of services available, visit its website. Men in crisis can contact the Whistler Community Services Society.