Residents of a wealthy Vancouver neighbourhood often known for resisting attempts at change are embracing their new neighbours in an apartment building for the homeless and mentally ill.
The Dunbar Apartments opened two years ago amid safety concerns and fears it could lead to increased crime in the area. Today, its residents are becoming integrated into the community.
“Everyone told me there would be break-ins, but it’s only the crows that have stolen anything from me,” says B.J. Jaffer, who owns a nearby convenience store. She now knows all of the residents by name and says they are very polite.
The building’s residents also say they have noticed perceptions are changing.
Dan Osipov, who moved into the Dunbar Apartments from the Downtown Eastside, says that people were wary of him at first but now better understand his situation.
“Everybody I’ve actually talked to – they might not have been sure at first – but once they’ve talked to me they’ve completely changed their mind and seen where we’re coming from.”
Listen: Osipov says talking to people makes a big difference (1’00”)
Neighbours have even rallied to provide basic household items for the building’s new residents and some are volunteering at the facility.
This is all a far cry from when the building was first announced as part of a plan to spread 14 supportive housing facilities throughout the city. The Dunbar site proved to be one of the most controversial, with many residents fearing the negative impact it could have on their community.
As plans forged ahead, however, some community members began to see value in having the facility in their neighbourhood.
“We realized a lot of families in Dunbar have not been excluded from mental illness,” says George Pinch, who served on the residents association at the time, which supported the project.
Attention turned from resisting the facility outright to working towards solutions that would minimize the impact on the neighbourhood. The city hired a mediator to hold a series of meetings between community members and the non-profit society, Coast Mental Health, which would operate the building.
“It helped move things from an emotional state down to setting expectations in writing,” says Robert Westendorp, who serves on a community advisory committee that continues to meet with staff from the building to this day.
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|Supportive housing in Vancouver|
|In 2007, the City of Vancouver and the Province of B.C. agreed to build 14 new supportive housing facilities throughout the city. Upon completion, these facilities will provide 1,200 affordable rental units with support services for homeless individuals or those at risk of becoming homeless. Seven facilities have opened to date.Click here for more information from the City of Vancouver.|
Challenges at the beginning
He acknowledges that there were still some challenges when the building first opened, including a spike in police calls and staffing problems.
Renay Bajkay, the program director at Coast Mental Health, attributes this to growing pains. “Whenever a building settles, there are a lot of unanticipated issues,” she says. But things are improving.
VPD statistics show a 40-per-cent decrease in police calls to the facility in its second year. Where there was an average of seven calls per month in 2012, that has fallen to an average of three calls per month in 2013.
That stands in contrast to a supportive housing facility that opened near the Olympic Village in the spring and has seen problems and complaints escalate since mid-September, with 116 police visits in less than two months.
Staff at the Dunbar Apartments noted that the majority of police calls were for just a small number of residents, who were then removed from the building.
‘A lot of hard work’
The facility has 10 staff members who supervise the building 24/7 and provide a meal program, medication program, and several other programs to help residents live independently.
Programs like these are critical, according to Michelle Patterson, who researches housing, mental illness, and addiction with the faculty of health sciences at SFU.
“It’s not a matter of just handing someone a key… it’s important to have support services.”
In the case of the Dunbar Apartments, success has also required commitment from community members and the building’s operator, says Westendorp.
“It’s something that requires a lot of attention… the fact that it’s working is the result of a lot of hard work.”