From the seventh-floor patio of the Marguerite Ford Apartments building at West 2nd Avenue and Cook Street, the Downtown Eastside looks very far away.
Indeed, it is for the many residents who came from shelters or who were sleeping on the streets before they found a room at this supportive-housing facility on the edge of Olympic Village.
“We’ve had amazing successes,” said Aaron Munro, a project lead with RainCity Housing, the building’s non-profit operator. “People who have reconnected with their families, people who have been able to go back to work, or people just having a place that is safe.”
“I’ve worked with some of the folks in this building for over 10 years, and to see them having their own kitchen, their own bathroom, and cooking for themselves,” he continued, trailing off. “We haven’t been successful at being able to keep everybody here, but the majority of folks have been able to settle into the building and are doing really well.”
Standing on that rooftop patio alongside Munro was Amelia Ridgway, an associate director with RainCity Housing. The two described a situation at the Marguerite as a huge improvement over the picture that emerged through 2014 media reports that began with a story in the Courier. That article by Mike Howell revealed police had received 729 calls to the Marguerite during its first 16 months of operation.
Since then, things have improved but challenges remain, and not just at the Marguerite. This building is one of 14 the city and province have opened to tenants as part of a partnership on housing that began in 2007. An ongoing series by the Straight reveals a number continue to experience growing pains that persist more than a year or longer after tenants begin moving in.
As previously reported, Vancouver Police Department statistics for the first 11 of these buildings to come online reveal a pattern. The number of calls to police goes up as tenants move in, usually peaking five to seven months after an opening. Then, after that initial rocky period, calls decline as the building ends its first year of operation and enters its second.
Statistics for the Marguerite fit this pattern. Police calls spiked at nearly 50 per month during the middle of the site’s first year. That was during the second half of 2013. According to statistics for the first six months of 2015, the number of police visits to the Marguerite has since declined, but still remains high compared to buildings that rent at market rates. Police visits to the Marguerite now average 31.5 per month.
Ridgway noted a high percentage of the Marguerite’s 147 units are occupied by medium and high-needs individuals. (When the building opened, 50 percent of tenants were previously homeless or living in a shelter and another 30 percent came from Vancouver’s generally shoddy single-room-occupancy hotels. Since then, RainCity has moved more lower-needs tenants into the building with the goal of creating more of a balance.) She said that means there will sometimes be challenges.
“I think everyone’s take on this is it is still a work in progress,” Ridgway added.
The city’s willingness to move a more challenging population into the Marguerite is related to a social policy known as Housing First, wherein homeless people who struggle with a mental illness or addiction issue are given a room as the first step to getting their lives on track.
SFU associate professor Julian Somers is at the front of a group of Vancouver researchers who have spent years studying Housing First. He told the Straight the pattern that appears in the VPD’s statistics is similar to data he’s analyzed in the past.
“We basically did a literature review and found that there was no evidence of increases in crime rates or declines in property values following the introduction of buildings like that,” Somers said in a telephone interview.
He added the benefits of Housing First extend beyond individual buildings and the people formerly homeless who live in them. “In terms of the city-wide numbers, clearly, introducing Housing First leads to an overall reduction in the amount of crime being committed and the number of convictions that are associated with that,” Somers said.
Don Gardner sits on community advisory committees for two supportive-housing sites located in Mount Pleasant. The first is at Kingsway and 12th Avenue and the second is at Broadway and Fraser Street.
He told the Straight his experiences with those buildings match the pattern present in the VPD statistics obtained by the Straight. (Though much more so for first than the second, which has also not been open for as long.)
“All of the sudden, we started noticing a lot more homeless on the street and a lot more characters hanging around,” Gardner recalled. “Break-ins were going up. And that kind of peaked and stayed up for a period of time after the opening.”
Gardner added that while calls to police have since declined, the question remains of why that is the case. He noted residential towers neighbouring these two supportive-housing sites have increased security. Gardner said that might have more of an impact on crime than anything to do with changes at the city's buildings.
“We’ve all basically hardened our building,” he explained. “When they see you’ve got new cameras everywhere and new deadbolts, they are going to move down the street to the next target.”
At the same time, Gardner repeated that things have improved since the two sites opened.
“Now that there is a core of people in the building, they have taken some ownership of that building and they feel it is there home,” he said. “So if new people come in and there is a problem, they are as much an advocate for the community because it is their community as well.”
Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang acknowledged residents’ concerns. “There is a lot of fear,” he told the Straight. “And so we actually invite them and we ask them to call us if they see anything.” Jang suggested that could help explain why a supportive-housing site attracts so many calls to police during its first year in operation.
Back at the Marguerite, Ridgway stressed she’s optimistic the number of calls to police will continue to decline.
“For some members of the community, moving in just took a little bit of time to get settled and to begin to feel safe again,” she said. “We can all identify with moving being stressful. And I think that having that year to really settle into their spaces has made a really big difference.”
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