One summer evening in 2013, Ronna Chisholm looked out an office window at a construction site across the intersection of Alexander Street and Princess Avenue.
Thinking aloud to a colleague working late, Chisholm asked if he knew anything about their soon-to-be neighbours.
“He said, ‘It’s going to be a shelter,’ ” she recounted. “And he just went, ‘It’s going to be awful. There is going to be police here constantly.’ ”
Chisholm, cofounder and president of a design firm called Dossier Creative, said that sentiment reminded her of lessons she learned from Milton Wong, the well-known financier and philanthropist whom she described as a mentor during her time at UBC.
“It was a conversation that sparked my thinking and connected the dots with previous conversations with Milt, and then the idea of…how we might help change the conversation,” she said.
When tenants began moving into 111 Princess in November 2014, a group of Dossier Creative interns was there waiting with gift bags that included items like coffee mugs donated by J J Bean (another neighbour). Seven months later, Chisholm said, she still visits the building’s third-floor lounge for a weekly game of snooker.
But she conceded that her colleague’s predictions about the building weren’t wrong. “After Christmas, you did see lots of police cars,” Chisholm said. “And I know there was a bit of chatter in January. ‘Oh, did you see there were three police cars? Did you see there was police cars there again?’."
According to Vancouver Police Department statistics provided to the Straight, officers made 61 trips to 111 Princess last month.
The building, one of 14 the city is developing as social housing in partnership with the province, was designed for Vancouver’s so-called hard-to-house, so some disruptive behaviour was expected. But that number of visits in a single month makes 111 Princess the most problematic of the 12 sites that are up and running.
Even so, Chisholm called it a success. She suggested that people in other neighbourhoods might feel the same about supportive-housing developments if they only got to know the people living in those buildings.
Ted Bruce is interim executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, the nonprofit that operates 111 Princess, which staff have dubbed the Alexander Street Community. He stressed that those police visits are seldom in response to one person harming another.
“This is a population with very high needs,” Bruce said in a phone interview. “There is even a special unit in there of 39 beds where some of the most difficult hard-to-house folks have moved into. So it’s challenging for us to have that site compared to other sites.”
Specific to the recent spike in calls to the Princess, Bruce revealed there are also extenuating circumstances at play. Digging into the VPD stats obtained by the Straight, he found a significant portion of the calls were related to just one person. “One of the highest needs individuals we serve,” Bruce added. “My staff feel the calls will drop back.”
John Pate is an Alexander Street Community resident with lower needs than most people in the building. How does he feel about living there when police are showing up sometimes more than twice a day?
In an interview in his 10th-floor room, Pate said it doesn’t bother him. “There are worse things happening on the planet than people doing drugs in an elevator,” he explained. “Most of these people have experienced a traumatic event in their life.”
When Pate recounted moving in last December, he described it as “the best Christmas present I’ve ever received”.
He had come from the Cosmopolitan, Pate recounted, a run-down hotel on the zero block of West Hastings. “No window, no sink, and meth heads all around me,” he continued. “Junkies, thieves, entrepreneurs, businessmen," he said, trailing off.
At the Alexander Street Community, Pate said he sees himself as part of a social mix that brings “balance” to the building, adding that that’s a role he’s happy to play.
As the Straight reported on July 8, VPD statistics for a selection of Vancouver’s more problematic social-housing sites reveal a pattern in which a building requires less attention after an initial one-year period. The Alexander Street Community is in the middle of that period, when emergency calls usually peak. So the numbers indicate that things are likely to improve at 111 Princess soon.
In the meantime, Chisholm reported that Dossier Creative’s employees and other tenants of the space they share are getting along well with their new neighbours across the street.
“I think, normally, our perceptions are: police equals crime and police equals fear, and there must be something horrific going on,” she explained. “Then we started going over there and breaking through the barrier.”
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