Kevin Usher liked his home in the Portland Hotel in the Downtown Eastside. But he had to move three months ago.
The elevator in PHS Community Service Society’s flagship SRO had broken down and Usher, who uses a wheelchair following an amputation, couldn’t navigate the concrete staircase.
“I was getting trapped on my floor or in the lobby. I couldn’t get to my floor. I would sometimes be stuck for days,” he told the Straight in an interview. “When you’re stuck in the lobby, there’s no toilet, and there’s no privacy and there’s no place to sleep.”
The Portland houses a significant number of residents with complex medical needs. Some, like Usher, move in there after a major medical event. Many rooms are wheelchair accessible, and staff are on-hand around the clock to provide help. But the building’s only elevator, which had been breaking down on and off for months, stopped working altogether in September 2022.
Residents were given a choice: stay in the building and continue trying to crawl up and down the stairs, or be moved to other PHS-operated buildings. Usher, like many–but not all–wheelchair users in the building, elected to move: to the Pennsylvania Hotel first, and then to Woodwards Community Housing.
But his new unit isn’t accessible.
“There’s no handles in the bathroom at all,” he said. There isn’t room to navigate around the cramped room. “I can’t do dishes, I have to go sideways to the sink… You can’t have a couch, you can’t have a chair. You’re going to have a bed, a TV, and that’s it.”
Trevor Mumm has a similar story. He lived on the seventh floor of the Portland with his girlfriend Cheryl Wilson and dog Bugsy, and was recovering from a partial foot amputation when the elevator first started breaking, around February 2022. He was using a wheelchair until a few weeks ago and now uses other mobility aids. He said the broken elevator “caused me a lot of shit.”
“[My foot is] still not even healed now after a year, because I had basically no other choice than to crawl up these stairs,” Mumm said in a phone interview. “I couldn’t even make my appointments, because I was too afraid I’d have to climb up these stairs again.”
Mumm’s doctor eventually started visiting him at home to help deliver care. The doctor also wrote a letter, stating Mumm suffered “delayed healing, medical compromise, and both physical and emotional [pain] as a result of a non-access to a reliable elevator at the Portland Hotel.”
Mumm and Wilson moved to their current home, Alexander Street Community, in late November, where Wilson and Bugsy were attacked by a dog, and their bed broke almost immediately.
“It’s so small that the wheelchair would kind of get in the way,” he said. “It’s as small as the Portland bathroom, almost. It’s ridiculously small for me and my girlfriend and my dog.”
Michael Vonn, CEO of PHS Community Service Society, told the Straight that the organization tries to make “the best match that we can” when moving people.
“Some of the spaces were not the same size. As you know, we have a housing crisis. Our stock of available units is not infinite,” she said. “We never, ever are able to promise perfection and if people are not satisfied with where they have landed up, then they’re able to come back. So nobody should be out for the long-term.”
Hamish Ballantyne, a community organizer at VANDU, worked at the Portland for four years. He said that while the elevator is old, it had worked fine for the first three years he was there.
“Around January of last year, the elevator company that serviced the building’s elevator changed,” he said. “After KONE began servicing the elevator, it became more and more unreliable.”
Ballantyne’s continuing work in the neighbourhood and relationships with tenants meant they told him what was happening.
“About 10 people did accept being moved out, but in many cases it’s not necessarily consensual, because they were given no choice, they’d already endured several months of being stranded in their rooms,” he said. “People accepted what was offered, which were units that were not as accessible as they have at the Portland. And they left behind long-standing relationships.” Ballantyne said those relationships between friends or staff members were essential in helping some people meet their daily needs.
Tenants at the Portland took power in their own hands in January, when a majority of tenants decided to form a union. Their demands included replacing the current elevator, alongside accessible washrooms on the ground floor, portapotties in the courtyard, compensation to residents for the time the elevator was broken, and granting all displaced tenants a right of return to their homes.
That final point is key.
“I can deal with what I have to deal with, as long as I know that I’m going to be going back to where I live,” Usher said. But currently his room at the Portland is listed as ‘vacant,’ and he has received no confirmation he can return.
After tenants marched from the Portland to PHS’s offices in February, the elevator was repaired. They held a second demonstration on Wednesday outside the board members’ office, asking for compensation while the elevator was broken. So far, the top brass have not met with union members.
Vonn said tenants had “legitimate concerns, and [it’s] very unsettling around the issue of the elevator.” But she did not say that the organization recognized the union.
“It’s very unclear who this group represents,” she said. “We are deeply concerned about the tactics of this organization, including targeting of our board members at their places of work in order to express their concern… We do not condone the actions of this body and particularly the harassment and intimidation of board members.”
Mark Tobiasson, who has lived in PHS housing since it first opened 27 years ago, says it is clear that the group represents tenants who live in the building.
“How the Tenants Union came about is we were talking about it for a couple of months, then we finally decided to stop talking and start doing. A couple of volunteers came to help us out… We make group decisions by vote,” he said, estimating 50 out of 90 people came to meetings. A letter with the group’s demand was signed by 82 per cent of tenants. “We’re not criminals,” Tobiasson said.
Vonn said the elevator would be replaced some time in 2023, and would be out of commission for eight to 11 weeks during that time. She did not commit to accessible washrooms or portapotties, saying, “The short-term solution is that the elevator works… If we find ourselves in a situation which it doesn’t, then that could be a consideration.”
However, she did confirm that the plan was for tenants to be able to return to their homes.
“If [rooms] are listed as ‘vacant,’ it’s because we’re doing some needed repairs. No-one who wants to come back to the Portland who was there will be denied the opportunity to do so. It’s just a matter of when we can make it happen,” she said.
While that assurance might offer some long-term hope, for now, former residents are still suffering in inaccessible rooms and lacking the care they need.
“We’ve been stuck with a bunch of shit here. It’s fucking awful,” Mumm said. “I don’t know what we did to deserve this… I feel really disrespected, to be honest.”
The union has said they will continue to advocate for the items on its list of demands.
“The Portland, as much as I complained about it when I was there, is a really, really good building. The staff are really good,” Usher said. “I had people come to my door to see how I was doing. I don’t have that at Woodwards. You’re just kind of left alone to live your life and you’re expected to be a lot more self-sufficient—and I can’t. This just happened a year ago, my amputation, and I’m still learning how to live with it.”