The 1970s horror movie Ben, which featured a killer rat colony, came to mind when Janice Abbott visited the ground floor of the Gastown Hotel more than a year ago.
“I’m not usually put off by rats but there were maybe thousands,” said Abbott, the executive director and CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society, which now operates the newly renovated hotel at 110 Water St. “You couldn’t see any floor because there were so many of them.”
While the rats and disrepair of the century-old building concerned Abbott, it was the state of some of the tenants that put her society and B.C. Housing on a path to turn the building around and make it livable.
She recalled some of the elderly tenants were afraid to leave their rooms. Jars of urine, feces and vomit were discovered when Atira took over management of the building.
One staff member was also taking advantage of a tenant, paying him $5 a day to do his cleaning job while be played video games. Some of the overnight staff brought in sex trade workers.
“It was unbelievable,” said Abbott in an interview after the Gastown was officially opened last Friday.
Abbott joined representatives from B.C. Housing, the federal government and Forum Equity Partners at the news conference to celebrate the turnaround of the hotel that opened to people who were previously homeless or at risk of homelessness.
After 17 months of renovations, the hotel has 96 units, including four units with full kitchens and bathrooms designed for couples such as Blair Foster and Deborah Kaine, who have bounced around in the Downtown Eastside from hotel to hotel.
Foster, 59, is a former drywaller originally from Goose Bay, Labrador who suffers from a lung disease called chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. He has also battled addiction and is on the methadone program.
Foster is a welfare recipient and receives enough money to pay the monthly $570 rent and buy food. To supplement his income, he collects bottles and scrap metal while Kaine panhandles. The couple says they regularly invite young homeless people into their room to feed them.
“We’re very fortunate we have so much, so it’s nice to help out,” he said in an interview from his small room that overlooks Water Street, which the couple shares with their cat, Cinja.
Foster said his home gives him stability and the support he needs to enjoy a life that has seen him reconnect with his 40-year-old son and 39-year-old daughter, both of whom live in Calgary. He learned he has two grandsons.
“They’re both doing just so well and I’m just so proud of them,” he said, noting he lost touch with his children for 26 years after a split in the family.
The Gastown Hotel is one of 24 single-room-occupancy hotels the provincial government has purchased since 2007 and either completely renovated or fixed up to make livable.
Of the 24 hotels, the Gastown and 12 others hotels have or are getting complete makeovers to the tune of $143 million through public-private partnership agreements. The hotels are set up to allow tenants access to health care providers and other services.
A B.C. Housing report released in June 2013 regarding the renovations of the hotels said “adequate housing is the cornerstone of care for addressing homelessness.”
“Homeless people with complex problems are more likely to return to the street, emergency rooms and inpatient wards and the justice system if they are not provided with adequate housing and support services,” said the report, noting a lack of housing for people with drug and alcohol problems “may be impossible without adequate housing.”