A new supportive-housing facility at Princess Avenue and Powell Street is generating a lot of calls to police. In June, Vancouver Police Department officers made 61 visits, an all-time high since the building at 111 Princess Avenue opened six months earlier.
It’s one of 14 sites the city is developing as social housing in partnership with the province following an agreement that was approved in 2007. The projects are characterized by things like below-market rents, units set aside for at-risk youth, and, in the case of the Princess, limited health-care services.
As the 139 rooms began to fill with tenants in December 2014, the number of police calls rose steadily, starting with 32 the first month it was open and increasing to the high of 61 recorded in June.
“When you start going to a building 20 or 30 times a month, that is a lot,” conceded Const. Brian Montague, a spokesperson for the force. “But there is some fear there that is not necessarily justified.”
According to VPD data supplied at the Straight’s request, things are likely to improve at the troubled Princess.
So far, 11 of the city’s 14 sites are up and running. Review VPD statistics for the first year each of those buildings was open and a pattern emerges.
Eight of the 11 recorded a steady increase in the number of calls to police for the first five to seven months of operation. But after that time, the number of calls began to decline. By the end of each building’s first year, VPD visits were substantially fewer than the number around the midyear peak. (There were a small number of deviations for those eight addresses. For buildings that did not fit this pattern, the number of calls was significantly lower to begin with.)
At Pacific Coast Apartments (337 West Pender Street), for example, there were 11 calls during its first month, 17 at the midyear point, and six during month 12. For the Sorella (525 Abbott Street), those numbers were eight, 22, and 10. And for the Marguerite Ford Apartments (215 West 2nd Avenue), they were four, 49, and 34.
What’s more, the pattern’s decline generally continues beyond the one-year period analyzed by the Straight.
“If you look at the more recent data, say, for the last couple of months, again there is a downward trend,” Montague said. “The Marguerite Ford is a good example: calls for service in the last year compared to the first year are about half."
Montague emphasized a number of caveats. For instance, the data only pertain to calls to each specific address and so would not include an incident that involved a tenant but occurred down the street. But he described the pattern as an indication that social-housing projects are not as damaging to a neighbourhood as residents of some communities worry. (In Yaletown, for example, people have started petitions in failed attempts to keep supportive-housing developments out.)
Montague also noted that any large residential tower is going to attract a certain number of calls. “We do attend regular buildings,” he said. “Not every day, but we do go multiple times in one month, depending on the size of the building.”
On a walk around the Downtown Eastside, B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay stressed that buildings with a high volume of police calls are housing people who need support for issues such as mental illness.
“That’s largely related to the client groups that have been housed in those developments," he said. “The 14 city sites and those kinds of projects really try to tackle the issue when you’re faced with it at the end of the line."
Both Montague and Ramsay noted the nature of the calls in question. The majority were for events like a suicide attempt or a drug overdose, or to check a person’s well-being.
“This isn’t people harming other people,” Ramsay said.
Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang told the Straight he’s observed similar patterns, where calls to the city spike when a site opens and then decline to a point where a building is considered a “success story”.
Jang described the VPD’s data as evidence in favour of “housing first”, a social policy proposing that support for a homeless person is most effective when it begins with a room that doesn’t have behavioural conditions attached, such as zero tolerance for drug use.
“It [the VPD data] is a very broad indicator, but it suggests that as people are getting inside, people are settling down,” he said. “That is what we are seeing. People start to accept help.”
This article is part of a series.
Part one: Do Vancouver’s social-housing projects attract crime? It’s a question with a complicated answer
Part two: Neighbours say police visits to supportive-housing sites no cause for alarm
Part three: Police calls reveal growing pains persist at Vancouver supportive-housing projects
Part four: How do you improve social housing? Choose the right mix of tenants