Farrah McCallum looks up from her wheelchair to a pair of unworn soccer cleats in her room. The shoes, she says, serve as inspiration to walk again, to stand firmly in sobriety and to try to regain custody of her two children in foster care.
When the 27-year-old thinks about recovering from living on the streets of Vancouver, she is glad to have found tenancy at a modular housing building in a residential neighbourhood far from the Downtown Eastside.
“It’s a struggle, man, because I’m trying to leave that lifestyle behind. It’s so easy to pick up drugs and just numb my pain,” she said. “But still, I miss that urge. Like I miss saying hi to everybody. Because everybody’s so friendly and it’s a community down there.”
Police and ambulance statistics support McCallum’s belief that it’s easier to get a fresh start when living away from the Downtown Eastside.
The modular housing building in Marpole, in a residential neighbourhood similar to the one where McCallum lives, had 34 police calls between its opening March 2018 and April 2019. There were no ambulance calls for overdoses in that period, and the location has the lowest number of calls for emergency services of all the modular housing buildings in the city.
In comparison, the two modular housing buildings in the Downtown Eastside, each with half the number of tenants of the Marpole building, received a combined 274 police calls and 47 overdose calls between April 2018 and April 2019. The two, on Franklin Street and on Powell Street, account for 35 per cent of the ambulance visits made to the 10 modular housing complexes in the city of Vancouver between January and April of this year. Of 194 ambulance visits, the Franklin Street building received 24 and the Powell Street building received 44.
‘IT HAS TO BE AWAY’
McCallum lives in the New Beginnings building on Heather Street, in a residential neighbourhood nestled between the VanDusen Botanical Garden and Queen Elizabeth Park.
“Being away from (the Downtown Eastside) has helped me, man, so much,” McCallum said. “If I was at the modular housing by Main Street, I wouldn’t have got it all together. It has to be away.”
She hasn’t been able to walk since an overdose a year ago, which left the nerves in both legs severely damaged.
“If I didn’t get in here when it opened, I was giving up on my kids, I was going to say f*** it. I have no support. I’m out here alone in a wheelchair,” she said. “I wouldn’t be drug free today.”
B.C. has allocated $291 million to build more than 2,000 units of modular housing in an attempt to manage the growing homelessness problem. Since the program started in 2016, about 1,300 units have been completed, more than 600 in Metro Vancouver.
The province plans to build 2,500 units of supportive housing — more permanent housing that offers supports such as meals and counsellors — across B.C. by 2028.
Vancouver’s 2018 homeless count found more than 2,000 people without permanent homes, up more than 60 per cent from 2005. Despite the opening of the 10 modular-housing buildings in the city of Vancouver, the 2019 count, released June 12, showed a two per cent increase to 2,223 people homeless.
Cameron Gray, a former social housing planner for the City of Vancouver, said there is an debate among housing experts about whether to place supportive housing in the downtown core or in more residential areas.
“Social housing will focus on where the need tends to be higher,” he said. “But on the other hand, there is a desire to disperse, and to make sure there is not an over concentration or not to exaggerate the over concentration that’s already there, depending on your perspective.”
Social Housing Minister Selina Robinson said in a written statement the discrepancy in emergency calls by geography is because of the tenant mix at the two locations in the Downtown Eastside.
“This resident mix was selected because these buildings are located close to many mental health services and clinics” she said. “Because many of the residents in the Franklin Street and Powell Street buildings are vulnerable, facing mental health and addiction issues, there are more issues associated with overdoses and emergency service calls.”
Penny Gurstein, a professor of regional planning at UBC and director of the Housing Research Collaborative, said the number of emergency calls at some locations could be higher because of just one or two problem tenants, but it’s impossible to tell without details of each specific incident.
She said proximity to high-risk activities in the Downtown Eastside could also be a factor in the discrepancy.
“It might be because of the fact that they have more access to certain kinds of activities that are not necessarily healthy for them and that could, you know, perpetuate more of these incidents,” she said.
“I think what’s more telling is the fact that there’s no incidents — or very few — in the rest of the sites. I mean, I think that that’s actually a really good sign showing that the temporary modular housing is working.”
‘TOO SOON TO KNOW’
Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society, the non-profit that manages the modular housing on Powell Street, said it’s hard to reach a consensus about interpreting the data on geographical location.
“It’s too soon to know whether one location is better than another for the tenants,” she said. “I know that for some tenants to leave the Downtown Eastside, that being away from the Downtown Eastside, is a struggle for them because this is where their supports are.”
The non-profits running different modular buildings can be selective about which tenants are housed in particular neighbourhoods, which may account for the higher number of calls at certain addresses, said Gray.
“You’re not going to place folks who are really, really hard to house in a neighbourhood which is pretty mellow,” he said. “You’re trying to make it work. You don’t want dysfunction to happen.”
Gray said the only realistic solution to the housing crisis is steady government funding.
“We should be building replacement housing for the SROs at a rate of 300 to 400 units a year. Yes, it’s a 20-year process, but you know, that’s the way housing is,” he said. “Housing is a race that’s won by the tortoise, not by the hare.”
Vancouver Coun. Jean Swanson said modular housing could solve homelessness if there was political will to fund it. Swanson’s campaign last year called for a mansion tax, which she says would create enough revenue in one year to build modular housing for all counted homeless people.
“It’s eminently doable,” she said. “And there would be so many benefits, not just for the homeless who could live longer and have a nice life. But for everybody else, because we wouldn’t have to pay so many taxes for emergency services.”
But choosing suitable locations for modular housing comes with challenges for the city.
“Projects near residential areas can initially face concern and opposition from neighbours,” said Robinson. “We purposefully place supportive housing projects near residential communities and close to amenities and services in order to promote healthy relationships with neighbours and local businesses, allowing tenants to integrate into communities and instil a sense of belonging.”
But McCallum said many tenants of New Beginnings modular housing, which opened in January and is operated by Lu’ma Native Housing Society, feel unwelcome in the neighbourhood.
“We’re not wanted around here, you know, we’re not wanted in this area. You can feel the hate by people every time I come through with my scooter,” she said. “(I’m) an ex-drug addict, but don’t judge me by my files. I’m clean now.”
Her experience is not unique among tenants of modular housing units in residential areas.
When the first modular building opened in March 2018 in Marpole, there was loud opposition from some in the neighbourhood.
A group called the Caring Citizens of Vancouver Society began protesting the city’s decision in late 2017. The group gathered on the steps of City Hall, unveiling blue banners with the slogan “Right Idea, Wrong Location.”
The group feared the tenants of the modular units would bring crime to the neighbourhood, and put children attending the three nearby schools at risk.
The society sued the city for lack of consultation. Their case eventually went to the Supreme Court of Canada before being dismissed in January.
Liza Jimenez, a Vancouver city planner, said intrusions from neighbours prompted the city to put up a fence between the building, named the Reiderman Residence, and the street.
“There were a lot of community members coming up to the windows and coming up to the doors,” she said. “People can’t just come up to the property and take photos of people’s units.”
William Jackson, a Reiderman tenant, said the resistance from certain Marpole citizens was felt immediately.
“It was like, whoa, you guys really don’t want us in your community,” he said. “It was kind of off-putting.”
But Jackson believes the residential location is a factor in the recovery of many tenants in the Marpole location, including himself.
“Look, it’s been fascinating,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who have been homeless for like 20, 30 years and this is their first apartment and they are actually doing pretty good.”
According to Vancouver Police statistics, 922 crime reports were filed in the entire Marpole neighbourhood since the modular housing residence opened in March 2018. Even if the 34 police calls to the address since it opened were all attributed to criminal activity, the site would still account for only 0.04 per cent of all police calls to the neighbourhood. By comparison, Marpole had 979 crime reports in 2017, the full year before the modular housing unit existed.
B.C. Housing’s regional director, Brenda Prosken, said the initial wave of opposition to the Marpole modular units has calmed since they opened.
“Marpole was the first and quite frankly the loudest and most adamantly against the housing,” she said. “Some neighbourhoods or neighbours just simply don’t understand people who can’t afford housing, people who may be poor, people who may have been homeless and living in shelters.”
Julie Roberts, executive director of the non-profit Community Builders that manages the Marpole building, said much of the community’s opposition stemmed from fear of the unknown.
“If a centre like this as a supportive housing centre hasn’t ever been in a particular neighbourhood, there can be a lot of misconceptions and fear and concerns,” she said.
Mike Burdick, president of the Oakridge community association, said his organization initially opposed Marpole’s modular housing because of a lack of consultation with the community.
“The city officials are afraid to reach out to the communities,” he said. “It was basically announced one day. The mayor at the time, Mayor Robertson, did a little meet and greet in the space where it is and essentially the next day they started preparing the site.”
Six months after the building opened, Burdick said many in the community have changed their minds about the supportive housing project.
“Things seem to be going quite well. There haven’t been any issues in the community. There’s been very little police activity there,” he said. “Local residents around the area have gone in and provided potluck meals. It’s been very inclusive, but it started out poorly.”
Doug McKenzie, a 64-year-old tenant of the modular housing address on Kaslo Street, which opened in July 2018, described the reception from people in the surrounding neighbourhood as “chilly.”
“You see the looks from the neighbours when they’re out, they don’t like us generally,” he said. “But I think we’re pretty good about it because there hasn’t been any heavy stuff going on.”
McKenzie said he is thankful to be living in a residential neighbourhood.
“It’s far enough away from the Downtown Eastside that you don’t get the regular traffic of friends, which I personally like,” he said. “The mere fact that there has never been any serious problems here shows that it works.”
He said moving into the modular unit has made a huge difference in his life.
“Things are taken care of, you don’t have to worry. People aren’t desperate.”
Backlash against supportive housing in Vancouver’s residential areas is nothing new, said Gray.
More than a decade ago, the city’s plan to put a 30-unit supportive housing building at 39th Avenue and Fraser Street was met with resistance before it was completed.
About 1,600 citizens from the surrounding neighbourhood showed up to two public meetings at John Oliver Secondary School to voice their concerns. They criticized the city’s decision to place the building two blocks from the high school and two blocks from an elementary school.
“We had police there for the public meeting. It can get pretty intense,” Gray said. “These projects are contentious, often, especially if you’re putting them in a neighbourhood which has not had any projects like them before.”
Gray says the success of projects depends on the competency of the building’s management.
“I always tell people that development is easy. Operations are hard. And it’s true. It’s how you manage these buildings which makes a huge difference,” he said. “The management in that building was effective. And, in fact, there have been no problems and the building has been there now for over a dozen years.”
Judy Graves, who worked in the first supportive housing development built by Vancouver in 1979, says with any new building — even a condo tower — it takes a while for the community to adjust.
“In five years, everybody will forget and life will be going on, and it’ll take somebody that will have a long memory to remember when the temporary modular houses were put up,” she said.
But so far, neighbours tend to be suspicious of the new social housing projects, regardless of where they are located.
Hugo Neuproer works at the front desk of an athletic centre across the street from the modular residence on Union Street, which opened in March. He said the negative reaction from some in the neighbourhood is misplaced.
“People who are on this block and didn’t have to be here at five in the morning every day didn’t see the things that were already happening,” he said. “They just ignored that there were people in tents over there, and they were sort of like, invisible to them.”
While the Union Street residence was under construction, his employer received letters regularly from a neighbourhood group protesting the housing, said Neuproer.
“People were trying to get us to protest it and say we didn’t want it to happen.”
Neuproer added he hasn’t seen an increase in disturbances since the modular residence opened.
“We have people smoking and we have people shooting up. But it’s been that way for over a year,” he said. “There’s nothing being ruined, it’s like, the problem is at our doorstep.”
But staff at a restaurant across the street from the modular units on Cambie Street — near Stadium SkyTrain station — said they’ve seen more problems since the modular housing was completed in November.
Bhel Ubongen, a manager of Fat Burger for eight years, said she has seen more drug use in the restaurant’s washroom and has had to deal with needles in the bathroom.
“We’re lucky for one day if we don’t have problems,” she said.
‘FIGHTING FOR MY KIDS’
Location is one of many factors in the city’s placement of new modular housing addresses, said Gray. The list also includes cost of land, appropriate tenant supports and amenities, and access to transit and zoning.
“The geographical location does matter. But also the other thing that you have to realize is that all real estate is opportunistic. So you have to find sites that will be available,” he said.
For McCallum, trying to recover from her addictions surrounded by the Downtown Eastside scene weighed on her.
“I was stuck in shelters for like three or four months. First time in my life I was living downtown struggling from watching everybody use. And you want to use, but you know you can’t,” she said. “It was hard.”
She’s come a long way since waking up in the hospital a year ago, when she was told she would never walk again and had lost custody of her children. She’s recently applied to go back to school with hopes of becoming an addictions counsellor.
“I’m fighting for my kids right now,” she said. “They’re not going to tell me I’ve got to sit in this chair the rest of my life. I got two boys I’ve got to chase.”
Patrick Penner, Rena Medow, and Kathryn Tindale are the 2019 recipients of the Langara College Read-Mercer Journalism Fellowship. This feature was produced through the fellowship.