Teenage housing nightmare part of growing Atira empire in Downtown Eastside

Atira boss Abbott married B.C Housing boss Ramsay

Its a beautiful day in this neighbourhood, a beautiful day for a neighbour. Would you be mine? Could you be mine? Wont you be my neighbour?

Mister Rogers never stayed at the International Inn. It was built as a brothel in 1912, at 120 Jackson in the Downtown Eastside, and grew grey with the neighbourhood. Today, its surrounded. One block south: Oppenheimer Park, a landmark for drug dealing. One block west: Powell and Dunlevy, one of the worst corners in the country. All around, pimps and dealers. Needles, black eyes, blood and tears.

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Its the last place youd put your children. Compared to 120 Jackson, Kandahar doesnt look half bad. But astonishingly, barring a last-minute reprieve, the Inn will be transformed into a housing project solely for teenage girls. According to the planconcocted by Atira Womens Resource Society and approved by city council last MarchAtira will spiff up the Inn, rename it Imouto House (Imouto means little sister in Japanese) and warehouse up to 25 girls (aged 16 to 19) whove aged out of foster care. Foster care graduates are famously vulnerable and often fall victim to pimps and drugs. The only adult on site, a so-called house mom, will help the girls adapt and mature.

Crazy, you say? Youre not alone. Opposition is widespread. Womens groups, aboriginal groups, youth workersall shake their heads. We need housing for girls, they say, but it must exist outside the Downtown Eastside. Dave Dickson, a retired Vancouver police officer, spent 28 years patrolling the neighbourhood. Now an outreach worker for the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, Dickson hits the streets every morning at 5 a.m., talking with women and girls, helping where he can. According to Dickson, Atiras plan is unprecedented and the location couldnt be worse. Housing young women down here should not be an option. It doesnt end well, Ive gone to way too many funerals, he says. There will be predators circling that building. I would ask anybody if theyd house their own daughter down here.

Janice Abbott, Atiras executive director, was unavailable for comment but during an April interview with the Courier, she defended the location and pointed to the many nearby services for troubled young people. She also said shell rely on police to help provide security at 120 Jackson, a claim that draws laughs from Dickson, the former beat cop. Good luck with that. The police are understaffed, theres no way they can rely on the police to protect them.

While city council approved Atiras plan last March, final development permits are pending. Late last month, in a desperate effort to thwart the plan, board members of the Ray-Cam Cooperative Centre, a longtime and respected fixture in the Downtown Eastside, penned a letter to council and housing minister Rich Coleman, asking everyone to reconsider 120 Jackson. Council acknowledged the letter and Ray-Cam may meet with city officials next month. But the province remains mum. Why? Not sure.

But consider this: While Atiras non-profit wing provides support services for women in the Downtown Eastside, Atiras for-profit subsidiary, Atira Property Management, manages a myriad of hotels reliant on government handouts. In June 2010, Abbott married Shayne Ramsay, CEO of B.C. Housing, which doles out taxpayer millions to Atira and other social housing firms. B.C. Housing wont say when they met or provide a relationship timeline. Atiras growth may have nothing to do with the marriage. In fact, considering the millions dumped into the Downtown Eastside, its likely Atira would profit notwithstanding. But for the record, heres whats happened to Atira over the past four years.

From April 1, 2007 to March 31, 2008, Atira received $1,722,438 from B.C. Housing. The following fiscal year, that number increased to $3,745,403 for projects such as the Drake Hotel. During the 2010 fiscal year, Atira received $7,541,828 from B.C. Housing and assumed management duties at 13 government-owned hotels in Vancouver and service duties at 10 additional government-owned hotels. During fiscal year 2011, Atira received $8,450,060 from B.C. Housing. Last month, Atira opened a 10-storey housing project on Abbott Street. The building cost $26.8 million paid for by all three levels of government including $14.6 million from B.C. Housing. And finally, last September B.C. Housing helped secure a $1,443,600 mortgage for 120 Jackson, Atiras pending disaster for teenage girls.

Its business as usual in the Downtown Eastside. Welcome to the neighbourhood.

mhasiuk@vancourier.com

Twitter: @MarkHasiuk

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