Portland Hotel Society site on Princess Avenue aims to create community for Downtown Eastside tenants

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      It all starts at the front desk for staff at the Portland Hotel Society’s newest building in the Downtown Eastside.

      That’s where manager Jeff West and other building staff are standing when the Georgia Straight arrives, as residents come and go through the entrance on Princess Avenue.

      The facility, which opened in November, is one of the newest of 14 supportive-housing sites created through a B.C. Housing and City of Vancouver partnership. The building contains 39 units of transitional housing and 100 permanent housing units.

      Ted Bruce, the interim executive director of PHS, describes the initial, front-desk contact as a crucial aspect of the non-profit’s approach in all of its buildings.

      “We’re really trying to create a stable community for people to be successful in overcoming the challenges that they’ve got,” he says in an interview at the site.

      The front-desk staff establish a relationship with all the residents, and complete regular rounds through the facility.

      “They’ll check on the rooms every day, make sure they’ve seen everybody from the building,” notes Bruce.

      According to staff, some of the tenants here are people they’ve known in the community for more than a decade, and this is the first time they’ve been placed in housing.

      Many residents are coping with mental-health and addiction issues, in addition to chronic illnesses.

      “They’re really challenged in terms of their ability to be able to be effective in the community,” says Bruce. “So having a stable, safe environment where they’re welcome and they’re connected socially is hugely important…That’s why getting all of these services sort of orchestrated is useful for them.”

      Supports in the building include maintenance, three mental-health workers who staff the facility 24 hours a day, a kitchen manager and chef, and two home-support staff who assist tenants with tasks like laundry. 

      West says even early into the operation of the Princess Avenue building, staff are seeing a stabilizing effect for people who’ve moved in off the street or from the hospital.

      “Just walking somebody into their apartment for the first time, showing the kitchen, the bathroom, more often than not, there’s tears,” he says. “People are so appreciative.”

      A clinic located in the building, mainly funded by VCH, also includes nurses, a social worker, a doctor a couple of days a week, and a psychiatrist one day a week. 

      Bruce notes that for many tenants, accessing primary care is a challenge.

      “For our residents, sometimes many of them…aren’t ready to see doctors,” he says. “So that’s why we think it’s important to try to make primary care more available to residents.”

      Therapeutic and recreational programs that have been created since the building opened include a First Nations program once a week, a journaling club, and walking groups.

      Tenants also have opportunities to work in pre-employment situations, like learning about food safety, prep, and cleanup in the large community kitchen.

      Bruce stresses the importance of having “wrap-around services” in the building.

      “It isn’t just the health care,” he notes. “They get the health care in tertiary, they get the health care in hospital, so it’s actually the social connectedness and the relationship between the staff and the building that settles people down, because we know from the literature social connectedness is so closely related to health.”

      West says the clinical staff who are embedded in the facility are particularly effective, compared to an outreach team coming in and “continuously missing people”.

      “The follow-up rate for our doctors and nurses here is 100 percent,” he says.

      “They’ll go to somebody’s apartment, and that person might not want to talk about their wound or something, they might want to talk about something that happened to them on the weekend, and so all of our staff are really skilled at that psycho-social aspect of engaging. It really is the most essential thing.”

      Some of the Princess Avenue tenants were formerly housed at the Bosman Hotel on Howe Street, as part of the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s At Home/Chez Soi Project. The “housing first" approach of that model, of ensuring that people have a roof over their heads, then providing the mental health and other supports that tenants need, is a key focus of PHS’ approach, according to Bruce.

      “If you look at the housing first model…the literature shows that it makes a big difference in terms of health-care costs, you know, prison costs—those kind of things are clearly offset when you can house people in a situation like this,” he says.

      The model at the Princess Avenue site is similar to the Bosman, according to Bruce, but “a little more transitional”.

      “I think that’s going to be one of the challenges of this project, is where to transition people to,” he notes. “There’s not a lot of places to go after this.”

      Bruce sees the successful launch of the new site as a “significant achievement” for PHS, which was thrown into the spotlight last spring after two scathing audits of the Portland Hotel Society’s finances were released.

      “We communicated a lot with staff to say…B.C. Housing and Vancouver Coastal Health still believe in PHS—because it could have been that they said we’re getting this building to be run by somebody else,” says Bruce. “And they didn’t, and I think that was a significant attempt by those funders to demonstrate their support.”

      Bruce draws on his background in community development to reiterate the goal of the supportive-housing site, starting from that front entrance.

      “The whole idea is that you are developing a community that is situated in this neighbourhood, and in the building is a community, and you’re community within a community, and what’s happening there is the building manager and the staff are trying to create that larger sense of community,” he says.

      He notes that links have not only been forged between staff and residents, but between tenants and the surrounding neighbourhood. When the residents moved in, the Railtown business across the street met with them and gave them gift packs, a gesture that produced “tears all around”.

      “I think to me, when I see the successful buildings, I get a little bit frustrated when people all think it’s just, you know, a big, black hole of throwing money down here,” Bruce says.

      “I’ve been lucky enough to see where it actually is effective in making a difference. So that’s I think an important story that people need to hear.”