Cody says it’s been three months since he set up camp in Canmore, the mountain town about 100 kilometers west of Calgary, and started sleeping in the woods.
His unauthorized, illegal campsite includes a few wooden pallets that form the base of his outdoor bed in the thick woods off Main Street.
It sits next to a towering tree, under several large branches. There’s a thin piece of foam, an old seat cushion, blankets, and a tarp to keep him warm and dry.
“It rained last night. It wasn’t fun,” he said outside a downtown cafe and yoga studio.
CBC News has agreed not to use Cody’s last name. He fears he could be charged with illegal camping and have his property and campsite confiscated.
He jokes that his address is 1 Pine Tree Lane.
Cody estimates that in a community where the median home price has surpassed $1 million, there are far more people sleeping outdoors. Rent for a one-bedroom house with a shared kitchen and bathroom ranges from $800 to $1,100 per month.
“I could have saved a damage deposit and the first month’s rent, but I didn’t have that luxury. So I was like, let’s give it a try, just go out into the bush,” he said.
As it’s getting cooler, the 44-year-old doubts he’ll be able to sleep outside much longer. He’s already fended off a coyote, and the prospect of struggling with freezing temperatures isn’t alluring.
The Coyote incident happened late at night. He says it got too close to his campsite, so he grabbed a sharpened stick he has for cooking hot dogs and used it as a weapon.
“I didn’t think I’d ever need to use it, but I grabbed it and stabbed him. [The coyote] screamed and ran away,” he said.
“I hit him in the shoulder.”
Permanent secure shelter required
An emergency shelter that opened in a church last winter and a relief program that provided temporary shelter for people when temperatures plummeted below -20C recorded more people than the year before.
The two programs were open for almost four months and provided accommodation for 28 people, who together took 366 nights.
The Homelessness Society of the Bow Valley (HSBV) says the need for shelter and support for people is “real and ongoing” and the “community would benefit from a year-round program.”
“In an ideal world, we would be open year-round, but of course the program is dependent on funding,” said Amber Forest, the society’s director.
According to Forest, the pandemic has hit many people who may be struggling financially, not to mention the soaring prices of almost everything has impacted the cost of living. She suspects these are probably some of the reasons more people are looking for housing, along with Canmore’s notoriously high property and rental prices.
Forest estimates that the Company will need approximately $170,000 to redo both programs this winter.
It’s not just money that the society needs to run the programs, they are now scrambling to secure a new site for the emergency shelter that operated for nearly two months last winter.
Church closes shelter
St. Michael’s Anglican Church in downtown Canmore has opened its doors for the past two winters to provide temporary shelter for up to seven people each night.
In the first year there were a few nights when not all cots were used. However, that has changed.
“In the second year we had times when there were more people than we could accommodate, so we had to turn people away and send them to other places,” said Howard Thornton, rector of the church.
The church met last week and decided to end its involvement in the emergency shelter program.
“So we think the program has actually outgrown us,” Thornton said.
He says the cribs were in one large room and offered no separation or privacy for men and women. Showers were not available and the church could not provide a cooked breakfast.
“We are at the point where we are realizing this facility, although it has worked really well for the first two years, it may be a little undersized for the year ahead,” said Thornton.
The city has launched a search for a new shelter and hopes to find something by December 1.
The mayor says there has been a struggle in the community with a shortage of affordable housing for years. He says it means some people are couch surfing, sleeping in their vehicles or in the bush.
“As a council, our job is to look after the best interests of the community as a whole, and the whole means everyone,” Sean Krausert said.
“Honestly, the alternative just isn’t palatable,” he said.
“If the community isn’t able to get involved, and by community I mean get the city involved, basically the only option available is to give people a ticket to go to Calgary, and that doesn’t live up to it absolutely their needs.”
Although the number of people looking for an apartment during the cold winter months is only five to six a night, Krausert sees the city as having a duty to help.
The local homeless society works next to the town. An attempt is also made to find a suitable location.
According to Forest, the ideal space would include more privacy for people, separate bathrooms and shower stalls, and a kitchen where meals and snacks could be prepared. She says an area where programs could be conducted or a private space where clients and staff could “decompress” would be ideal.
Forest says it’s difficult hearing stories about Cody and others sleeping outside.
“It is extremely unfortunate. It should never have to happen. Everyone should have access to a safe, warm night, no matter the situation,” she said.
Cody says he knows he’s not the only one having trouble sleeping.
“I’ve seen at least eight different camps, maybe ten, and I’d say that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
He hopes his situation will change soon.
He has an interview this week for one of six positions he’s applied for at a Banff hotel. Along with his paycheck, he says, the job would include staff housing.
“That’s really what I prioritize because I don’t want to stay on the road,” he said.
Bryan Labby is a corporate reporter at CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter @CBCBryan.