Like so many others, Derek came to Fernie last fall hoping for a season of fun in the mountains.
He’d taken a leap of faith that he would find enough work to pay for housing and a lift ticket. But on a frigid evening in February, with his eight-month-old dog Khaleesi by his side, the 29-year-old found himself out walking the streets and back alleys of the community searching recycling bins and dumpsters for empty bottles and cans.
“I’m probably your only homeless person in town,” he said.
Derek, who declined to give his last name, said he was spending the winter in a tent at an undisclosed location in the bush outside town. He’d been unable to overcome the challenges of an increasingly gentrified community that offered low-paying service sector jobs, high rent and low housing stock.
“I often worried about him,” said Brenda Sutherland, marketing and community engagement liaison with
East Kootenay Employment Elk Valley. “He was in our office everyday for a few weeks and I kept checking in with him about his work search but there was nothing.”
Derek was the archetype of a struggling transient in that he was male, Canadian, alone and a non-B.C. resident, she said. This prevented him from qualifying for welfare and other provincial services.
When the Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders or Canadian women come, they often come in groups, said Sutherland, so they have each other. It is also not uncommon for foreign nationals to have money saved to help them get settled whereas “this guy didn’t,” she said.
In Fernie, there is a woman’s shelter that provides housing. Even if guests need to sleep four to a room, they’ll have a place to stay.
“It’s the men,” said Sutherland. “The men have nothing. They either couch surf, they freeze, or they go to Cranbrook and try to find services there. Men need help here.”
As part of her years of work in support services, Sutherland has found that there are a few local homeless people who either make the choice to live a certain lifestyle or struggle to find sufficient housing.
“Have I seen homelessness? Yes. But they cannot last a winter here,” said Sutherland. “They have no choice but to go. It’s not often that someone has to live in a tent somewhere.”
Many newcomers to Fernie depend on the Raging Elk Hostel, which is an important networking hub for seasonal visitors to band together to find housing.
Sutherland said she has also seen several young people living in a van until they get set up with other housing arrangements.
“They will go in groups of six to eight and they’ll find a place,” she said.
However, even individuals who endure tough times upon arrival – the majority of familiar faces she sees at the beginning of the winter season – manage to find housing within the first month, she said.
There are special cases where some of her clients find themselves struggling more than others, “but when we see them back at our storefront in good health and warm, it alleviates our worries.”
In March 2007, the City of Fernie hired CitySpaces Consulting to analyze the current housing situation and to develop a strategy to address issues of affordable and attainable housing.
CitySpaces concluded that Fernie’s growth as a recreation hub has produced unanticipated consequences, including changes to the housing market. Demand significantly exceeds supply and housing prices and winter rents have escalated drastically.
It found that low income individuals have the least choice in the Fernie housing market. Many of these individuals live in unstable or unsuitable housing; some are at risk of becoming homeless.
Their report concluded that seasonal workers need wider and better housing choices in the market or it will become harder attract them in the future.
“They are a vital part of the valley’s economy, providing a range of services in the hospitality, recreational and retail industries,” said their report.
Derek said he’d spent the last of his savings on a van, “So I could have somewhere to chill and be mobile if I ended up getting work,” but his primary residence was a tent in the bush outside town.
Living outside through one of the harshest winters in living memory was a challenge.
“It’s been a learning experience,” he said. “You’ve got to learn how to deal with the weather.”
Derek said he’d installed a tarp above his campsite to keep the season’s impressive snowfall from collapsing his tent. When the temperature dropped he “dressed for it,” and claimed he could handle the cold.
Little additions to his “homestead” like an improvised bridge across a nearby stream and a positive outlook made his living situation more comfortable.
“As soon as I wake up and I open the door to my tent I’m outside and I love that,” he said.
Sutherland tried to help Derek find a job. She helped polish up his resumé and cover letter and suggested he make changes to the way he dressed.
Part of his troubles might have been bad timing. Darren arrived in town after an important EK Employment job fair in late October when all of the jobs at Fernie Alpine Resort (FAR) were gone.
“He’s got quite the story because he was smart,” said Sutherland. “Talking to him, he had intelligence, he had common sense, he was honest about things when we asked him and that’s why I thought ‘why are you falling through the cracks?’”
After failing to find work, Derek turned to recycling cans and bottles for income. In the evenings he made the rounds of the community’s trash and recycling bins and on a typical foray he’d net between $15 and $20.
“You see so much around town wherever you’re walking,” he said. “Do you walk by 10 cents on the ground or 25 cents? Not really. So I see the cans the same as a coin. I’ve just got to pick them up and exchange them.”
He’d come to town hoping to do a little snowboarding, a desire that did not come to fruition. However, he said he’d been doing a lot of hiking in the trails around Fernie as he could not afford to do much else.
He said he would be leaving Fernie if his prospects did not improve. Still, despite unemployment, can collecting and guerrilla camping, Derek was upbeat about his situation.
“I’m clothed, I’m fed, I’ve got a place to stay and I’ve got a dog,” he said. “So I’m living life.”