The hundreds of refugees who pour into Vancouver every year will soon get a base unlike any they’ve had before — a one-stop housing, support, and services centre in the Commercial Drive heart of east Vancouver.
The new $24-million Welcome House Centre, whose rezoning application was rapidly approved at Vancouver council recently, will provide 200 beds in short-term apartments and house several support organizations. Those groups will provide services for an estimated 2,000 refugees, nearly double the number of people served at the current Welcome House in downtown Vancouver.
“It will be far easier than it is now because [refugees] won’t have to navigate all over the place,” said Chris Friesen, the project manager from Immigrant Services Society. “They will be able to go to one place to get the support they need.”
The city has agreed to lease the land, near Victoria and Broadway, to the society and its partnering organizations for the next 60 years. The new stability comes as a relief to Settlement Orientation Services and Inland Refugee Society, which were forced to move three times in the last six years.
“For non-profits who offer social services, it’s hard to find sympathetic landlords. Another reason that a secured site will be a godsend,” explained Alexandra Charlton, Settlement Orientation Services co-ordinator.
According to the city’s report, the city sped up the rezoning and development process because of the “potential social benefit of the proposal.”
“This centre is aligned with the city’s long-term priority to cultivate and sustain vibrant, creative, safe and caring communities for the wide diversity of individuals and families in Vancouver,” said Kent Munro, the assistant director of planning.
The rezoning and development permit application was submitted on April 30 and construction is projected to finish fall of 2014.
Funding flows in
Friesen said 70 per cent of the necessary money has been raised. Vancity credit union has donated $500,000, the City of Vancouver and BC Housing have both donated project-development funds, and a number of private donors are contributing.
“Over a quarter [of the funding] is coming from ISS ourselves through the selling of the building and cash reserves that we have,” said Friesen. “We’re also intending on taking out a mortgage for part of it.”
The current Welcome House building, at 530 Drake St., is for sale for $5 million.
The idea is to have everything — financial training, primary health care, government offices, housing, refugee trauma treatment, a youth drop-in space, a food bank, a law clinic, and a community kitchen — under one roof in order to simplify the process for newcomers.
That’s something that past refugees know will make a difference.
Kewal Pokharel was one of about 500 refugees who arrived in Vancouver last year. Now living in Coquitlam and working as a janitor, he came to Vancouver after living in a refugee camp in the Jhapa district of Nepal for over 18 years. His son needed medical treatment after suffering a brain injury from a motorcycle crash.
As soon as the family landed, Pokharel’s son was checked by medical staff and immediately taken to hospital, where he remains today. The family stayed in a hotel because there was no room at the tiny Welcome House that exists now.
“Yes, of course, the stay at hotel was not difficult, but we would be missing that support and guidance,” said Pokharel. “So if ISS could have such a housing place where such families with medical needs can be housed, that would be very nice.”
Pokharel found it difficult to navigate through social services and the medical system. Simple things like banking, buying groceries, a phone card, or a bus pass, were challenging, because services are so spread out.
Neighbours respond favourably
The first community open house was in February. Residents’ main concern was the height of the buildings — one will be four storeys and the other, six storeys.
But many, like Mari Wright, support the project. Wright has lived in the neighbouring co-operative since the mid-’80s. She arrived in Canada from Sri Lanka when she was seven.
“I think this neighbourhood is probably more welcoming to something like this than many others I can think of,” she said.
Friesen said the community’s overall response so far has been positive.
“We haven’t had anyone come out and say, ‘This is a bad idea,’” said Friesen. “I think people listen to what we’re trying to do and they say, ‘Why has it taken so long to get this together?’ Some people are saying this may be a new model for social services.”