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Neighbourly SRO tenants defy expectations of fearful crowd

David Wood plucks a Tim Hortons cup from the daffodil beds that line the sidewalks on East Hastings, a block…

By Elizabeth Hames , in City Feature story , on March 26, 2014 Tags: , , , ,

David Wood plucks a Tim Hortons cup from the daffodil beds that line the sidewalks on East Hastings, a block from the PNE. Cleaning the litter off the sidewalks around the former Ramada – his new home – is part of his nightly routine.

“We pick it up because that’s a neighbourly thing to do, right?” says a soft-spoken Wood, scanning a doorway for more discarded coffee cups.

He is not the tenant a mob of angry Hastings-Sunrise residents expected when they stormed a community meeting at the old hotel in December. They were upset at the city’s plans to transform the building into transitional housing for the homeless as they wait for permanent homes, a first for the neighbourhood.

The angry crowd feared the tenants would loiter around a nearby elementary school, leave needles in the alleys, or add to the many panhandlers that who pace the medians that split the Cassiar Highway.

The meeting became so heated, city staff called in Councillor Kerry Jang to quell the chaos.

But three months later, their nightmare hasn’t been realized.

“This is their home”

Police have seen no increase in calls to 3475 E. Hastings St. this year. Neither has the Hastings-Sunrise Community Policing Centre. There are fewer homeless people in the neighbourhood now, because a handful of Ramada tenants were previously living on the streets of Hastings-Sunrise.

And Wood is part of a team of those tenants chipping in to maintain the Ramada and the area around it.

“There’s a lot of talented people that are painters, plumbers, carpenters … that sweep the area and say, ‘This place needs to be spruced up, let’s get it spruced up.’ And they do a great job,” Wood said. “This is their home.”

Clair MacGougan, who heads the local community policing centre, has noticed some residents eying the Ramada suspiciously, but most have become less fearful of its tenants.

“There’s a fairly large group of people now who want it to be successful,” he said.

Lara Davis, who sits on the community advisory committee for the Ramada, agreed.

She said community meetings that included the building managers, tenants, and residents have helped quell their concerns.

However, she is hesitant to declare the project a success at this point.

“I would say at this point we’re cautiously optimistic,” she said.

Too nice?

Back at the December meeting, residents complained about the lack of community consultation, the building’s $7.4-million purchase price, and the trouble they anticipated their new neighbours would bring to the area.

And they had one more criticism that continues to echo in Wood’s memory: “It’s too nice.”

Wood shows off the daffodils in his room at the former Ramada.
That was a comment from one distraught woman woman after she toured the large apartments.

Indeed, the suites are spacious by Vancouver standards. Wood has more room than he knows what to do with. His bed, bathroom and closet take up two-thirds of the room. The remainder is completely empty.

“My youngest son came to visit me. He said, ‘ You can put a pool table in the other room,'” said Wood with a laugh.

But Wood said the Ramada gives him the chance at independence, security and stability. And, countering the critics in December, he said “that’s not ‘too good’ for many people.”

Wood had been homeless for two years before moving into the Ramada about a month ago. Like the majority of tenants, he had been sleeping on a mat at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre shelter in the industrial zone east of Main.

“The best thing about the first day I woke up is my cellphone was charged where I put it, my wallet was where I put it, my keys were where I put it,” he said. “A lot of people think that’s normal.”

The tenants’ $375-per-month rent covers their private room and bathroom, two meals a day, 24-hour security, and access to computers and laundry.

David's bear
Wood adjusts the scarf of the bear that sits on his window sill.
And Community Builders Benevolence Network, which runs the building, is working to get each tenant what they need to be independent by October – be it a job, social assistance or identification.

Wood said he has confidence the network will fulfill its promise.

“Whatever supports we need will be put in place to make it on our own,” he said.

While the building does have its troublemakers, Wood said, the majority of tenants are good neighbours.

“People who come here, they have a past, they have a history, and they want to get better,” he said.

Future unknown

The Ramada is one of three former Vancouver hotels repurposed the last two years as interim housing, a key element of Mayor Gregor Robertson’s strategy for eliminating street homelessness by 2015.

B.C. Housing covered the cost of the 95 units at the Biltmore at 395 Kingsway, and the city shelled out $7.4 million for the Ramada on East Hastings and another $15.5 million for another Ramada at 3484 Kingsway, now called the Kingsway Continental.

The Kingsway Continental is slated to house 100 people now living in SROs in the crumbling Continental Hotel. But the city doesn’t know what will happen to the Ramada on Hastings when tenants move out in October. And it refused to say what options it is considering.

But Councillor Kerry Jang entertained the idea of continuing to use the Ramada for transitional housing.

“The site can be used as interim housing in the future,” he said.

While the Ramada’s future may be uncertain, Wood’s next step is clear for the first time in years.

“I hope to go to Tanzania,” he said. “I’ll work towards that and save my pennies and see if I can afford a flight there. But other than that, I do want my own permanent home.”