Tracey Morrison and Samona Marsh went before city council today (September 17) to speak about the Mayor’s Task Force on Mental Health.
Both residents of single-room occupancy hotels (SROs) in the Downtown Eastside, they told the Straight they wanted to share their experiences living in these buildings that have come to house so many of the city’s mentally ill and addicted.
“People are starting to create mental illness inside themselves with anxieties and going crazy because these people are telling them what to do,” Morrison said.
Marsh interjected: “It’s a glorified jail cell.”
As the city acts to improve the physical well-being of tenants in some of Vancouver’s shabbiest hotels, housing advocates are calling attention to mental-health needs.
Ann Livingston, a cofunder and former executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, told the Straight that residents of SROs complain about repressive rules such as restrictions on guests and burdensome identification requirements. She questioned the impacts those rules have on people struggling with addiction and mental-health challenges.
“They implement the design of housing in such a way that people don’t want to live in it,” Livingston said. “They can’t have a guest over. And if you’ve been homeless for a couple of years, what’s the first thing you want?”
On September 16, city council passed a bylaw amendment aimed at cleaning up problems at SROs like pests, plumbing issues, and worn walls and floors. Today, councillors received the first report of the Mayor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Addictions. That document states that there are an estimated 2,000 “severely ill” SRO tenants not receiving the care they require for mental-health and addiction challenges.
The report acknowledges a strategy called Housing First, which the Mental Health Commission of Canada has identified as significantly reducing mentally ill homeless people’s interactions with police and hospital services.
In a telephone interview, D J Larkin, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, expressed support for Housing First but stressed that it has to be implemented in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily burden its beneficiaries.
According to Larkin, it’s unlikely that SRO rules like ID requirements for guests would stand if challenged before the B.C. Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB). But Larkin noted that buildings funded by B.C. Housing and categorized as “supportive housing” bypass the RTB.
“Some tenants have expressed that it’s like being in jail,” she said. “Being limited in having friends and community around is really devastating for some people.”
B.C. Housing declined to make a representative available for an interview and referred questions to its nonprofit partners.
Ted Bruce is interim executive director for the Portland Hotel Society, which operates 16 SROs in the Downtown Eastside. He told the Straight that PHS staff ask for guests’ identification but do not hold ID cards during visits (a common gripe).
“I don’t think that our rules are too strict,” he said. “When we have received a complaint, we’ll meet with the tenant and sit down with them and explain the reason for a rule, and they are generally very accepting of that.”
Chasing a crisis
Through September 2014 the Straight ran a series of articles exploring how Vancouver cares for the severely mentally ill.
Part one: Vancouver police still seeking help to prevent a mental-health crisis
Part two: Amid a mental-health crisis, Vancouver care providers revisit the debate on institutionalization
Part three: Vancouver service providers fail to get ahead of a mental-health crisis
Part four: B.C. prisons lock mentally-ill offenders in isolation