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Why are job seekers from Alberta ending up in Vancouver shelters?

Metro Vancouver's job market is booming, but the region's high cost of housing is pushing out of work Albertans into the city's homeless shelters

James Fisher, a 44-year-old oil patch worker from Alberta, has been living at the Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as he tries to save enough for an apartment

Jen St. Denis/Metro

James Fisher, a 44-year-old oil patch worker from Alberta, has been living at the Union Gospel Mission in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as he tries to save enough for an apartment

There’s no shortage of construction work in Metro Vancouver, but the region’s high cost of housing is pushing some job seekers from Alberta to land temporarily in homeless shelters.

“It has been hard,” said James Fisher, a 44-year-old oil patch worker who was laid off in January. He’s been living at the Union Gospel Mission shelter for a month while he works at a warehouse and tries to save enough for an apartment.

“I came here, I was sure that I had housing, me and a friend, then he backed out due to finances. That left me hanging, and when you’re new to a city you don’t have the contacts, you don’t know the city layout.”

Organizations in the Downtown Eastside say there has been a big increase of people in a similar situation. Jeremy Hunka, a spokesman for Union Gospel Mission, said the shelter has seen a 50% increase in out-of-province arrivals compared to last year, mostly from Alberta.

“We have been seeing a really large influx of people from Alberta,” said Marcia Nozick, CEO of Embers, a temporary employment agency in the Downtown Eastside that helps people transition back into the workforce.

The good news is that the Albertans are finding work in the Lower Mainland’s booming construction industry, usually a few weeks after finding themselves in the shelter. They’re often skilled tradespeople who are used to working hard and are “not entrenched in the street,” Hunka said.

“They’re coming because there just isn’t work in Alberta,” Nozick said. “But it’s expensive for them — they’re in a little bit of a culture shock.”

There are a lot of construction jobs in the Lower Mainland for the taking, Nozick said: Embers has been unable to fill some positions and this week opened a second office in Surrey.

While Alberta continues to struggle through an economic slowdown that was triggered by the oil price shock of 2014 and 2015, B.C. currently has the highest job growth of any province in Canada. On Friday Statistics Canada reported that B.C. gained 12,000 jobs, while the country as a whole lost 31,000 jobs.

B.C.’s booming job market is an urban phenomenon: outside of Metro Vancouver and Victoria, the rest of the province has seen a decline in employment, said Bryan Yu, and economist with Central 1 Credit Union. Since January, job creation in Metro Vancouver has grown 5 per cent, compared to 0.4 per cent for Canada.

Further adding to the shock for Alberta workers is the lower wage environment in B.C.: it’s unlikely a laid-off oil patch worker will be able to make what he or she did at the height of Alberta’s oil sands boom. B.C. wages haven’t grown even as more jobs have been created, Yu said, and the province has lost many of the high-paying oil and gas jobs of northern B.C.

The situation is putting added pressure on Vancouver’s already severe housing crisis. Compared to one year ago, Union Gospel Mission is turning away three times  as many people because the shelter is full. That number has grown not just because of the relatively small number of people coming from out of province, but because homelessness in Vancouver has been increasing overall.

“We have a 0.6% vacancy rate, rents are increasing all the time, and SROs (single room occupancy hotels), which used to be $325, $375 are $500 plus — sometimes they’re up to $600 or $700,” Hunka said. “The average rental price for a bachelor in the Downtown Eastside is $900. More people are falling into homelessness and it’s harder to get out once you’re there.”

Welfare rates in B.C. have been frozen since 2007, but many of the people using the Union Gospel Mission shelter are working and are simply not able to make enough to get out of poverty.

“Even with a job people on the bottom rung are having a harder time hanging on,” Hunka said.

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