The following article originally appeared in Adventure Uncovered on March 11, 2021. Thank you to Sam Firman and Adventure Uncovered!
Supporting homeless youth in the mountain Mecca of Whistler
By Sam Firman. Sam is a freelance writer exploring the links between adventure, travel and social progress with a background in social innovation. Recently moved from London to Vancouver for access to the mountains.
In one of the world’s most renowned ski towns, Zero Ceiling is supporting young people at risk of homelessness through adventure sports.
Dakota Williams prides himself on snowboarding most days of the season. “My substance of choice is snowboarding!” he half-jokes, speaking over the phone on his way up the Fitz chairlift for one last ride. Since quitting drinking and smoking weed last year, snowboarding has been a vital outlet for Dakota. As well as riding regularly, he has started mentoring young snowboarders through the Indigenous Life Sports Academy. Dakota comes from Ojibway, Cree and Mohawk descent, and is excited to support young Indigenous snowboarders.
I met Dakota through an organisation called Zero Ceiling: a charity based in the Canadian ski town of Whistler supporting young people at risk of homelessness between Whistler and Vancouver. He is a Zero Ceiling Peer Support Worker, having previously sat on the Board of Directors and been through some of the programmes himself. These programmes offer support with housing, employment, education, life skills, mental health and more – all wrapped around a love for adventure sports. Dakota is using his own experiences to support other young people. That he can do so while snowboarding helps explain why Zero Ceiling exists in Whistler – in many ways an unlikely place for such a charity.
Nestled in the Coast Mountains on the unceded territory of the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations in British Columbia, Canada, Whistler is an outdoor Mecca. The town is defined by adventure. Its skiing and mountain biking, in particular, are widely regarded as among the world’s very best – a status neighbouring Squamish also enjoys with climbing. You would do well to find a resident who doesn’t excel in more than one of these sports.
But despite its beauty and active outdoor community, in some ways Whistler is a victim of its own success. It can feel like a brand as much as a place – its village promenade like an up-market strip mall smuggled into a snow globe. The sense of Whistler as commercial asset sharpened when US conglomerate Vail Resorts bought Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in 2016. The tension between profit and people has simmered since.
This makes Whistler inaccessible to many, and certainly young people at risk of homelessness. Living costs are prohibitively expensive and accommodation notoriously scarce. Skiing for one day costs at least $150 CAD. As in many ski towns, economic drivers help hinder social diversity, no matter how welcoming locals may be. Painting Whistler as a white middle-class bastion would be slightly inaccurate, given the large population working for low service wages. But its population is mostly white European, and mostly either people with financial means or people without dependencies able to get by on low wages and free lift passes.
It is unlikely that Whistler will ever be a force for social equality. But Zero Ceiling is working hard to ensure that it doesn’t become an entirely exclusive enclave by leveraging Whistler’s main draw – adventure – to support young people.
Indeed, the nature of many adventure sports is the bedrock of Zero Ceiling’s work. “The foundation of our programme focuses on being strength-based,” explains Rhianna Russell, a Youth Case Worker at Zero Ceiling. “Individual sports allow us to really consider individual needs and strengths, and create an environment that encourages youth to challenge themselves in a safe space.”
Sports like snowboarding and mountain biking are expressive. Combined with the mental-health benefits of being outdoors, this creativity can prove valuable for people who have faced repeated barriers in life. “Homeless youth or at at-risk youth face so many barriers that they have had no control over,” continues Rhianna – “including huge barriers to gaining employment, accessing services, food insecurity and financial instability. Removing barriers so youth can access the outdoors allows them to enjoy being themselves and feel the connections all youth should feel.”
But while adventure provides the hook, and drives the industries offering work opportunities to the young people Zero Ceiling works, wrap-around support is also critical to its work. Rhianna and Dakota both emphasise the supportive community as critical to success through Zero Ceiling’s programmes. “It’s not the individual that has the biggest impact on their success,” says Rhianna. “It is the community they are connected with.”
This is no comment on participants’ resilience, which is incredibly high given they have faced life without much support for a long time. It is rather a recognition of the power of our environments – of the “snowball effect” that occurs when the many people involved in Zero Ceiling programmes – peers, mentors, supportive employers, counsellors who understand complex needs, instructors who go beyond – collectively act in ways that allow young people to feel supported. “When new participants arrive we focus on enabling them to come out of survival mode – to feel safe and secure,” says Rhianna. “We ask so much from them in trusting us, when so many others – especially those in power – broke their trust. When the armour comes off they often feel extremely vulnerable, and this is where the wrap-around service comes in.”
Dakota also speaks of the importance of this safety net. “Zero Ceiling provided that sense of family,” he says. “Obviously moving away from Vancouver isn’t too far, but being away from my support network was difficult.” He singles out his relationship with Co-Executive Director Sean Easton, who has mentored Dakota. The sense of Dakota moving from mentee to mentor is palpable and heartening, as he adapts to his new roles.
Young people need people who can relate to their life experiences. But given homelessness disproportionately affects young people who are Indigenous, LGBTQ2S, in poverty and leaving government care, this is not always easy in a relatively homogenous and affluent place like Whistler. Rhianna does see this changing, as societal awareness of these issues increases, but recognises it is slow going. She mentions the valuable work of the Squamish and Lil’wat Centre in Whistler and the Indigenous Life Sports Academy, where Dakota coaches.
Solving the structural underpinnings of youth homelessness in the Sea to Sky Corridor is clearly beyond Zero Ceiling alone. But although its work seems mostly focused on supporting individuals, in reality Zero Ceiling’s approach presents a window into how organisations can come together, even in affluent ski towns, to at least put the brakes on social inequality.
Partly of course people like Dakota, who is considering training as a social worker, can do work that sees Zero Ceiling’s efforts reverberate across the community. But Zero Ceiling’s model also relies explicitly on partnership working. Rhianna speaks about how vital other Whistler businesses have been in supporting Zero Ceiling’s programmes. In a sense, having a community strongly aligned on specific values, like a love for the outdoors, helps facilitate these collaborations.
But Zero Ceiling is also branching out into more proactive advocacy, drawing on lessons and insights relating to some of the issues it works on. A key thread of this work, Rhianna explains, is helping other workplaces become welcoming spaces for people from different backgrounds – especially those shaped by trauma. “We recognise that when an employer is aware of the (often hidden) barriers individuals may face and creates a work environment that embraces these individuals, we see huge successes for both employer and employee,” she says. “It requires creative thinking, empathy and being open minded to potential outcomes. Our work guides employers through this.”
Building a network of employers and other organisations committed to making places like Whistler more equal is vital work, especially as the pandemic has increased many of the risk factors – job instability, food insecurity, mental health challenges and more – driving youth homelessness and wider inequality. “Zero Ceiling’s relationship with the Sea to Sky community continues to grow each year,” reflects Rhianna. “This community truly cares.”
This is promising, but Zero Ceiling’s ultimate goal is to end youth homelessness in British Columbia. For this legislative change is required. For example, Rhianna points to the importance of ensuring every young person exiting government care is supported for at least a year, given the high risk of them becoming homeless. This change is achievable, she insists. Indeed, Zero Ceiling is showing the value in this type of care, drawing in part to Whistler’s rich outdoor culture. But to really exert pressure on lawmakers to enact systemic change, Rhianna sees that coalitions of citizens and organisations – including adventure organisations – aligned around this work is vital. “This is where I see the change.”