A mental-health group is determined its newest and largest-ever housing complex will be accepted into the Kitsilano community, despite continuous opposition from several neighbours.
At nine floors, the MPA Society building at West Seventh Avenue and Fir Street building has elicited both support and vocal opposition from community members. Executive director David MacIntyre is not surprised.
“It’s fear, right? And I understand totally,” he said. “People’s homes are often their biggest investment. They’re worried about their money, they’re worried about the community in which they live…we work with them around alleviating their fears and responding to their concerns.”
The Motivation, Power and Achievement Society has kept a low profile in Kitsilano since 1971. That’s been possible because most of its residences were small until recently. In July 2012, the society opened the nine-storey building, which includes a community resource centre, in partnership with Sanford Apartments above, run by the charity Katherine Sanford Housing Society. The apartments offer 62 units for people living with severe mental illness or without a home.
Since then, MacIntyre said several neighbours in particular have been harassing the MPA Society daily, attributing every community issue to the building as well as behaving inappropriately towards staff and residents.
“Not in my backyard”
Their objections demonstrate the challenge of putting housing for the mentally ill into middle-class neighbourhoods. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has pledged to end homelessness by 2015, a goal the city hopes to reach with the help of 1,575 new supportive housing units on 14 sites that have been funded by the province. Although Vancouverites repeatedly say in polls that solving homelessness is a priority, they are often less enthusiastic when the solution arrives on their doorsteps.
“There are going to be some people who are going to be against it no matter what because they philosophically believe that [social] housing shouldn’t be in their neighbourhood,” said MacIntyre. “They say it should be built in east Vancouver or out in Surrey or somewhere else.”
The majority of Sanford Apartment residents are from the Kitsilano area, which has had a small community of homeless people living in its alleys and on its beaches for decades. The building’s community resource centre also attracts people from other neighbourhoods, such as Francis Lamontagne.
Lamontagne has lived on and off the street for the past several decades and struggles with mental illness. He regularly attends the MPA Society’s resource-centre meal program. He stressed the need for buildings like the one at Seventh and Fir.
“It’s 2012,” he said. “Nobody should sleep outside, nobody should eat from the garbage.”
Building neighbour Anthony Podlecki agrees with these sentiments.
“I’m concerned to make sure that this is going to work,” said Podlecki. “We hope it really works to the extent that people in the neighbourhood would say ‘Yes, let’s have more of us this, let’s have a variety of residences and a variety of residents and a variety of income groups.’ Why not?”
A community advisory committee meets quarterly to address neighbourhood concerns. A 24-hour phone line is available for urgent issues.
“I’m bending over backwards to be the most helpful neighbour you could ever imagine,” said MacIntyre, who hopes the interventions will assauge the fears of neighbours.
Const. Paul Hogan of the Kitsilano Fairview Community Policing Centre said the calls to his office from local residents concerned about activities around the building, from people drinking publicly to noise and littering, have gone up dramatically since the building opened. He remains undecided as to whether successfully integrating supported housing into a residential community is possible.
“I have mixed views on it. I’m not sure exactly I want to share them,” said Hogan. “Just like a lot of people I think there’s pros and cons to it…how would you feel about it? Time will tell, it’s all fairly new.”
Hogan says that, while no major incidences have occurred, police are closely monitoring the area.
“We know there are some property-crime offenders actually living in [the building]… I want to know if there are those types of people in there. I want to know who they are and keep tabs on them if we can.”
While the success of the project is yet to be determined, Judy Graves, the city’s advocate for Vancouver’s homeless, is optimistic.
“It sounds alarming to move homeless people in, as if homeless people were another kind of people, “ said Graves. “But homeless people are just people who don’t have a home. And as soon as they have a home, they cease to be homeless people and they start to look better…and will just become very indistinguishable from the rest of the community. And that always happens and it will happen here.”