'Act like you're tanning': Homeless Banff worker spends days in park, nights in McDonald's

Young people coming to Banff to work for the summer can't find anywhere to live, and residents say they've never seen the housing crunch get this bad.

Acute housing shortage, exacerbated by Canada 150 free park admission, leaves low-wage earners few options

Josh Smith pretends to sightsee in Banff in order to avoid looking like he's loitering in the park. Smith has a job in the mountain town, but hasn't been able to find affordable housing. (Falice Chin/CBC)

Like many visitors to Banff, Josh Smith carries around a backpack filled with extra clothes and toiletries.

Except, he's not a tourist.

The 22-year-old pretends to sightsee in the mountain town, in order to sneak in a nap here and there.

"Flip out a little blanket and put some glasses on — act like you're tanning," says Smith as he walks across Central Park, a popular tourist spot along the Bow River.

Smith moved to Banff from Saint John in June — drawn by the mountains and the abundance of work.

He found a job almost immediately as a store clerk in a major retail chain off the main drag.

But finding a place to stay is another story.

Smith says he earns close to $15 an hour. His employer doesn't offer staff housing, so he's willing to pay up to $800 per month for a roof over his head.

"I've looked at quite a few," he says. "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 that's just drinking."

After posting a plea on the online classified website Kijiji, Smith began couch-surfing at his friend's apartment. But he knows when it's time to leave.

"You don't want to wear out your welcome," Smith says.

Illegal camping impossible

Smith arrived in Banff from New Brunswick in June. He's checking online listings every day for a place to rent. He's willing to pay up to $800 a month to share a room. (Falice chin/CBC)

On nights when he's out on his own, Smith relies on McDonald's for shelter.

The fast-food restaurant is open 24 hours — an ideal place to sip coffee and wait for the sun to come up.

"I slept outside one night and I was way too worried about the police or animals," Smith says, adding that if caught camping illegally, he could be kicked out of Banff temporarily — and lose his job.

He says it's happened to others.

Pointing at a nearby public washroom, Smith says he's willing to bet there's at least one other homeless person using the facility at any given time.

"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."

'This is unprecedented'

Canada 150 and Help Wanted signs line the storefronts of Banff Avenue. The town is experiencing a tourism boom and a labour crunch. (Falice chin/CBC)

Brian Standish manages the Home Hardware store on Bear Street. Born and raised in Banff, the 57-year-old longtime resident says he's never seen the housing crunch get this bad.

"This is unprecedented," says Standish. "I've heard of people having to camp up in the campground, people having to camp illegally — sleeping in cars. It's dire straits."

Standish says many businesses are hurting for workers. At the same time, housing regulations are strict in the national park, which leaves some seasonal and transient workers out in the cold.

"They're just average Joes coming to Banff for the summer looking for work," says Standish. "They can find work but they can't find any place to live."

Brian Standish, who runs the Home Hardware store in Banff, says there's an urgent need for labour and housing. (Falice Chin/CBC)

Town cracks down on Airbnb

Renting out residential homes for commercial purposes — such as vacation accommodation —  is illegal in Banff without a permit. But a quick search on Airbnb yields more than 50 offerings in the area, but not all of them appear to be licensed bed and breakfasts.

Town officials are cracking down on illegal listings, says town Coun. Grant Canning, who also owns the Banff National Perk Coffee House & Eatery.

"That is not allowed under our current bylaw largely because we need the long-term accommodation," says Canning. "We are aware it happens and we're doing our best to stop it."

Canning says issues around housing are often at the top of council's agenda.

"The Town of Banff has a zero per cent vacancy rate," he says. "When in reality it's probably a negative rate because a lot of the accommodation we do have can be oversubscribed — people living on friends' couches or literally in people's garages."

A new, affordable apartment complex is under construction. When complete in 2018, the Coyote Lane (recently renamed from Deer Lane) project is expected to add more than 130 units to the rental market.

Meanwhile, workers like Josh Smith say they have no choice but to continue living with no room to call their own. Despite the uncertainty, Smith says he has no plans to return to New Brunswick.

"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."


Falice Chin

Executive Producer, CBC Ottawa

Falice Chin is the executive producer of news at CBC Ottawa. Before moving to the capital, she worked as the senior producer of the Cost of Living -- CBC Radio's national business and economics show based in Calgary. Her international work has appeared in the Financial Times, the National Post, Zacks Investment Research, mergermarket and elsewhere.