Catholic church provided shelter 

It’s almost a biblical theme – the church opens its doors to homeless people seeking a winter sanctuary as cold sets in and the snow begins to fall.

It’s a familiar good Samaritan theme, except that the year is 2000 and the place is the resort town of Whistler. Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church provided temporary accommodation at its premises on Lorimer Road during the midst of Whistler’s worker housing shortage.

In all, more than 17 people sought and found accommodation at the rectory of the Catholic Church during the six weeks the shelter was open between Nov. 6 and Dec. 18, 2000. The venture was closed prior to Christmas because the house was needed by a visiting priest.

The shelter initiative was the result of a collaborative effort between the Catholic Church, Whistler Community Services Society, the Whistler United Church and Whistler’s youth outreach worker, Greg McDonnell. The parties originally met in mid October to discuss the possibility of using the vacant rectory to help address the housing shortage. As a pilot project, it involved a huge amount of work, in terms of providing a budget from WCSS, consulting the health inspector and lawyers, arranging insurance and soliciting volunteer staff and extra bedding supplies. Under the setup, eight beds were made available in five bedrooms.

Within the first week of opening the shelter was full and it remained that way throughout the six week trial. Surprisingly perhaps, it was not just young out-of-towners that made up the bulk of the shelter occupants. WCSS executive director Janet McDonald says everyone from new arrivals to established locals with expired home leases took up the offer.

"We had all ages, ranging from 20s to 40-plus year olds staying in the church and even briefly we had a mom here with two kids, before the children moved to live with their grandparents."

Residents were asked to stay a maximum of one week and those who could afford to donated $8 a night to help cover costs.

According to McDonald, the possible zoning restrictions turned out to be non-problematic since the service was essentially free. Breakfast was available and a hot meal provided at dinner. Support was given to help each resident in terms of finding employment and housing.

However, McDonald says most people were forced by circumstances to stay longer than a week and only a few could afford to contribute financially.

"Finding a job wasn’t the problem because there is plenty of work going in town but it’s an old catch 22 that if you don’t have a long-term place to live, you can’t secure a job."

McDonald says by the time the shelter closed, some of the residents had decided to move out of Whistler to places where housing was easier to come by.

McDonald says as an experiment, it clearly showed the level of need for extra housing in Whistler, especially at that time of year. She says things appear to have settled down post-Christmas and she seldom receives calls from people seeking housing. However, she says interim housing will undoubtedly be needed at the same time next November-December.

"We will be discussing whether to offer the same service again dependent on many factors," she explained. "It was very expensive to run and required an on-site co-ordinator at all times."

She says the community groups would have loved to provide a long-term accommodation solution this season but it wasn’t realistic given the high cost and limited availability of the rectory space.

A spokesperson at the Diocese of Kamloops says she believes this is the first time a situation has arisen, where the Catholic Church had a vacant home in a community as desperate for housing. She says the Catholic Church predominately supports secondary agencies in terms of providing housing for street kids and the homeless.

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