Kitsilano: Kits House provides a home for local seniors

Neighbourhood has one of the highest senior populations in Vancouver

Evelyn Legault steers her red scooter eight leafy blocks home from a seniors resource fair at Larch and Second to her low-cost apartment in a building for seniors and people with disabilities.

Legault, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, attended the fair to gather information for the seniors resource centre at Linden Tree Place, the 30-unit building where she lives and volunteers.

Three-dozen seniors visited the fair for information on home support, power of attorney and Westside Community Food Markets, which provides low-income West Siders with coupons to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

Kitsilano is home to families in character homes on pretty streets canopied with trees, residents of multiple housing co-ops and renters of all descriptions. It also includes a surprising number of low-income people and seniors, including Legault.

Catherine Leach, executive director of Kitsilano Neighbourhood House, believes there's a preconceived notion that vulnerable people don't live on the West Side.

"We see it on a daily basis, whether people are coming into the seniors drop-in or whether they're coming to the family drop-in. We had 200 people who accessed our income tax clinic, which is only for low-income people," she said.

On typical Tuesdays, Kits House hosts a seniors drop-in at Maple Crest Apartments at Sixth and Maple while Kits House at Seventh and Vine is being redeveloped.

Legault, 70, steps off her scooter most Tuesdays to lead a short stretching session at the drop-in before settling in with other seniors for a $3 lunch and a speaker or entertainer. Often the speaker is a fellow senior. Twenty to 30 seniors attend each week.

Sandra Petrozzi, coordinator of family and seniors programs for Kits House, estimates up to one-third of those who attend do so out of financial need.

According to the 2011 census, Kitsilano had the fourth highest population of people aged 65 to 69 out of 22 Vancouver neighbourhoods and placed eighth for its rate of those 70 and older.

Kits House staff noticed the 100 residents of Maple Crest weren't involved in the community when they moved the drop-in there so they asked the United Way to complete a needs assessment.

"One of the barriers was fear around if I ask for help I might be forced to move to a care facility," said Leach.

Kits House secured 12-months of funding for an outreach worker who got almost every resident attending the drop-in or connected to other services. The worker connected one resident who wasn't eating with a meal delivery program and then noticed this senior had stopped ordering meals.

"What she eventually figured out is that she couldn't read, so she couldn't pick the items from the menu," Leach said.

"It's always surprising to me how many seniors just don't have anybody. If people knew how many seniors in our community were living like that they would be blown away."

Kits-raised Legault has spent nearly 58 of her 70 years in the community.

"I'm a Kits person," said Legault, who's lived solo for 35 years since her divorce.

Legault loves living close to Kits Pool and the Kitsilano Showboat, where she has volunteered for more than 30 years.

"The thing I love the most is you look over to the mountains, and oh, it's so beautiful," she said. "And then the sun starts setting and it's gorgeous down there."

Diagnosed with MS in 1999, Legault wondered how long she'd be able to navigate the 30 stairs to her studio apartment at Second and Cypress.

She didn't want to have to leave Kits.

"Are you kidding? Give me a break," she said at the question. "Listen, I lived here all my life."

Legault took early retirement from a bank when she was diagnosed. She had started volunteering at Kits House a few years before that and helped petition city hall to support the rezoning for Linden Tree Place. But Legault didn't even consider applying to live there until it was suggested.

She calls her new one-bedroom suite a dream come true. "It just suits my needs and everything," she said.

Kits House received just over 400 applications through B.C. Housing for the 30 units at Eighth and Vine before it opened. Applicants needed to demonstrate financial need, commit to volunteer five hours a month and preferably live on the West Side.

"We want to really support people to stay where they're accustomed to," Petrozzi said. "They have their doctor and their contacts here so that really makes it an easier transition for them and staying independent."

Kits is the first neighbourhood house that's developing housing in its building where residents will walk through the facility to access their homes. It needs to raise $1.7 million for its capital campaign.

Leach says it's important for everyone, with money and without, to feel connected to their community for their own happiness and their community's health.

Legault teaches stretch and strengthening classes twice week. She paddles with a dragon boat team for people with MS, staffs the seniors resource centre, volunteers at Linden Tree Place's rooftop garden and continues to volunteer at the Showboat.

She's pleased Kits House is providing affordable homes for seniors.

"There's a great need for that," Legault said. "Much more."

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