Pre-Olympic bid to house addicts under fire
Retailers accuse the B.C. government of cleaning up Vancouver streets at their expense
The B.C. government has moved homeless addicts into several downtown hotels. (CBC)
A group of retailers in downtown Vancouver is accusing the B.C. government of hurting their businesses by putting homeless drug addicts in hotel-style rooms above their stores.
"They just want these people off the streets for the Olympics," said clothing-store owner Claire Burke. "They don't actually care about the people. It's not a long-term solution."
The complaints are coming from two clothing stores and a bistro located on the ground floor of the Dominion Hotel on Abbott Street, in the tourist area of Gastown. It is one of 23 downtown hotels recently purchased and renovated by B.C. Housing for a total of $135 million in a bid to move the homeless off city streets.
The hotel renovations were aimed at providing affordable accommodation for hard-to-house residents of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, which is adjacent to Gastown.
The three business owners said drug-related activity by some of the 63 new residents at the Dominion is scaring their customers away. They believe the government has concentrated too many of the rooms in one area — a part of the city where drugs are available around almost every corner.
"I don't have an issue with these people, as people," said Burke. "But, you know, my sign gets kicked over. The door gets spat on. People come in and swear at me. I lost a $500-sale once."
Threatened with assault and robbery
Burke said one resident threatened to "kick her ass." Another warned that people upstairs were planning to rob her store.
Gastown retailer Claire Burke says drug-related activity has pushed her business to the brink. (CBC)
"I called B.C. Housing, crying, and I said 'Hey, this is what's happening. I don't feel safe in my own store.' I didn't get a phone call back. I didn't hear anything," she said.
Her store, Planet Claire, sells "sustainable and ethically produced" clothing, with an emphasis on Canadian designers.
"The [previous] landlord said it was going to be a boutique hotel above us," said Burke, who originally thought she was setting up shop in an ideal location, because the area was becoming gentrified.
Burke is a 26-year-old former methamphetamine addict herself, who borrowed money to open the store last November.
"I have been one of those needy people," she said. "A lot of those really needy people need to be in rehabilitation."
Kelly L'Hironedelle, the on-site manager of the Dominion rooms, said the 24-hour staff work hard to keep a lid on drug-related problems. However, he agrees the addicts need much more help than what they are receiving.
Lack of detox services 'very frustrating'
"There's a lot of people here who are wanting to go to detox and that process is very frustrating," said L'Hirondelle. "If there was one thing that could help, it's definitely more resources that these people could be linked up with immediately."
On-site manager Kelly L'Hironedelle says residents don't have quick access to detox. (CBC)
Burke said she has witnessed drug dealing and plenty of other disruptions outside, including a resident screaming at his bloodied girlfriend, whom he had just assaulted.
"He was screaming in front of my store for a half an hour, in handcuffs," said Burke. "She's there apologizing for him beating her up — because they were shooting heroin and she said, 'I just freaked out, we were doing a fix and I'm so sorry.'"
The man has since been moved to another government-owned hotel, according to L'Hirondelle. He said the government decides who lives where, and the Dominion has a more stable clientele than others.
"How do you pick who is right to be housed? All people have the right to be housed," he said.
B.C. Housing's website indicates that priority is given to people whose "health and safety is at extreme risk," including those with "acute addiction" coming out of jail or hospital. It classified the facilities as "low-barrier" — which means addicts are allowed to use drugs on the premises.
Businesses withheld rent in protest
Last spring, Burke and the two other retailers decided to take a stand and not pay their rent, hoping the B.C. government — which had become their new landlord — would reduce their rent. All three said the combination of building renovations, drug-related activity and the recession had caused a significant drop in revenue.
Bistro owner Emmanuel Joinville says the government is 'sponsoring' the drug trade. (CBC)
"I understand the people upstairs have rights," said Jules Bistro owner Emmanuel Joinville. "I thought I had rights too — to do my job, to work."
The retailers said they are still being charged more than $40 per square foot for their spaces. This represents the high end of market rental rates in that area, and it's what retailers paid without the disruptions when the upstairs rooms were empty.
Joinville said trying to negotiate with B.C. Housing was pointless. A few weeks ago, a bailiff showed up to inform the businesses they had to pay up or their doors would be locked.
"You can't talk to anybody. I want to see a decision-maker sit at a table here and say 'OK guys, there is an issue here,'" he said.
He said customers eating on his patio have had syringes and other garbage thrown at them from upstairs windows.
"I look at it now and say 'you know what, my government is kind of sponsoring the drug dealing here instead of trying to do something about it,'" he added.
Joinville and Hajnalka Mandula, the owner of the other clothing store, said they eventually paid their arrears to avoid eviction.
Joinville said he was given a small discount, but said he still thinks he's paying too much. Mandula called the whole experience "seven months of hell."
Province will enforce contracts: Minister
Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for B.C. Housing, said the retailers should have known what they were getting into in that neighborhood.
"It has nothing to do with the residents," said Coleman. "This is actually more a good story with regards to the people that have been taken off the streets and have a place to live. Frankly, the commercial tenants knew they were in the Downtown Eastside."
Housing Minister Rich Coleman says the dispute with retailers has nothing to do with residents. (CBC)
Burke is now facing imminent eviction, because she said she has no money or credit to draw from. She said she was only able to come up with $6,000 of the $28,000 she owes in back rent under her current lease.
"It's a lot of money for someone like me," she said tearfully. "But for the government — after what they've put into this, millions and millions of dollars for buying the hotels and revamping them — someone with the power just has to say 'yes you can stay here, we will make your rent a fair market value,'" she said.
"I do feel like I am the kind of person that [the government] should be helping," she added.
Coleman did not express any sympathy.
"This particular tenant is deeply in arrears and we've sought the legal action we can with regards to the commercial tenancy," he said.
Manager L'Hironedelle wonders what kind of support the Dominion will get from the province after February of next year.
"I wonder, what is my support level going to be after the Olympics? Am I still going to have seven days a week support workers?" he asked. "Or am I just going to be reduced to front desk staff? That is what I fear."
Kathy Tomlinson CBC news
Sept 22, 2009