A 140-unit social housing tower built for homeless people with mental health and addictions issues that opened downtown on Burrard Street last May has avoided becoming another example of a problem building for police and emergency personnel.
Unlike the 147-unit Marguerite Ford housing project on the edge of the former Olympic Village, which generated 729 police calls in its first 16 months of operation and included regular visits from paramedics and firefighters, the Kettle at 1134 Burrard St. required police to respond 150 times from June 2014 to present.
“We’re down to the average [police calls] for any building this size, so that is really good news,” said Nancy Keough, executive director of the Kettle Friendship Society, which manages the $32-million complex built with money from the provincial government on $4.7 million worth of city land.
Keough said the society had the advantage of learning what worked and didn’t at other buildings opened under the partnership between the province and city, which has led to 12 of 14 city properties developed for social housing.
The Kettle set up an advisory committee that includes police and community members, installed an effective security system, ensured access to adequate health services and staff took its time in choosing the right mix of tenants, including 53-year-old Ralph Guitard, who spoke to the Courier after a ceremony Tuesday to officially open the 16-storey highrise.
“There’s been issues but all in all it’s a pretty well maintained building — they don’t take any crap here,” said Guitard, who pays $420 per month for a 350-square-foot self-contained apartment, which includes cable and Internet. “I messed up once since I’ve been here and got banned from using the [community space].
It made me sit and realize how important that space is to me while I’m living here.”
Guitard, who was homeless for several years and says he has kicked a cocaine habit, said having a place to live has given him some stability and access to a doctor for his hepatitis C treatment. Guitard noted having St. Paul’s Hospital across the street is also convenient for tenants.
“This building has turned my life around, it’s given me hope,” he said during the ceremony, which was attended by Vision Coun. Kerry Jang, who said he hasn’t received any complaints about the building that is also home to Directions Youth Services Centre, which serves homeless people between 13 and 24 years old.
When the Marguerite Ford Apartments at 219 West Second Ave. opened in May 2013, it didn’t have a proper security system in place and was designed where tenants could exit out a back door into an alley that bordered a condominium complex, where neighbours complained of people injecting drugs, loitering on their property and tossing furniture from windows.
Police calls to the building involved fights, drugs, weapons, threats, break-ins, stolen property, frauds, suicide attempts, domestic disputes, missing persons, abandoned 911 calls and assisting paramedics and firefighters.
The Courier published a story in September 2014 that detailed the problems with the Marguerite Ford building and heard from Housing Minister Rich Coleman that he wasn’t happy with the outcomes and effect on the community.
City manager Penny Ballem said in the article that too many people with mental health and addictions issues were moved into the building too fast and “the honest truth is, we got behind there.”
The 150 police calls to the Kettle since June 2014 included emergencies, medical calls and follow-ups to investigations, said Const. Brian Montague, a media liaison officer for the Vancouver Police Department.
“When you look at the number of units there and the individuals they are housing and compare it to buildings that have been deemed what some have called a problem premise ... the number [of calls] isn’t all that big,” Montague said.
Rob Turnbull, president and CEO of the Streetohome Foundation, which donated more than $2.8 million to the Kettle project, said he was glad to hear the building was meeting its mandate of providing housing and services for tenants who were previously homeless or at risk of being on the street — without causing problems for police and the neighbourhood.
Turnbull credited the use of what’s called “the vulnerability assessment tool,” which provides the city, non-profits and B.C. Housing with a detailed method of selecting tenants for housing and determining whether a building is equipped to manage a person’s mental health and addictions issues. Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Center developed the tool.
The city applied this method retroactively to the Marguerite Ford building and discovered many tenants didn’t have the mental health support they needed.
“There are so many lessons we have learned with Marguerite Ford, and the Kettle has been able to capitalize on those,” said Turnbull, noting the tool calls for relationships with prospective tenants to be built with management before moving into a building.
Meanwhile, the Marguerite Ford building has generated 193 police calls since September 2014 to present, according to police. Management upgraded security, made some design changes to avoid tenants directly accessing the alley, added more staff, relocated some tenants, formed a committee with neighbours and arranged more visits from health care workers.