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Historic hotel reopens to serve Vancouver's homeless

The historic Pennsylvania Hotel officially reopened today, providing 44 studio apartments and on-site support services for low-income residents of Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside.

“This is the future of what we have to do as a city, as a province, as a country, and most importantly in this community to make sure people are not homeless and suffering on our streets,” Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson told a packed house. “Supportive housing is the only long-term solution, particularly for those who suffer from mental health or addiction challenges.”

The new Pennsylvania Hotel is unique among social housing developments in several ways:

All 44 apartments are self-contained suites, with full bathrooms and kitchenettes, like tiny apartments. (The average size is about 250 square feet.)

There is office space on each floor where health care workers and counsellors can meet with residents on a routine basis, enabling clients to begin treatment for mental health and addiction issues in a safe and secure environment.

And while the interior of the five-storey building is fully modernized (12 units are even wheelchair accessible), the 103-year-old exterior has been fully restored to regain its perch as a heritage landmark at the corner of Hastings and Carrall streets.

Also unique is the way public, private and non-profit entities contributed to the $14-million restoration, which was managed by the Portland Hotel Society.

(At an average of $326,000 per unit, the Pennsylvania apartments were only slightly more expensive than new construction, and include not only the renovation of the historic façade but also revenue-generating retail and restaurant spaces on the ground floor.)

“You know the expression, it takes a village to raise a child?” asked Portland’s executive director, Liz Evans. “It takes an entire country to raise a social housing project.”

The opening of the Pennsylvania -- previously known as the Rainbow Hotel, and then the Portland Hotel -- represents a homecoming for the society, which operated the old hotel from 1991 to 2000.

The provincial government made the largest contribution, totalling about $4.6 million.

“This is a project with real partnerships,” Housing Minister Rich Coleman said. “We have the federal government, the provincial government, the city government; we have the private sector, the volunteer sector, and the non-profit sector all coming together to make something happen in this particular facility today.”

Coleman added, “It doesn’t matter what the government is...the heart of this building doesn’t come from us. It comes from the Portland Hotel Society.”

Vision Vancouver Mayor Robertson echoed the partnerships theme, and pointedly thanked the various Non Partisan Association-led city councils that contributed to the project, which has been nearly 18 years in the making.

“In the City of Vancouver right now, ending homelessness is the top priority for us,” Robertson said. “We are finding emergency temporary shelter...for people who have been on the streets, getting them inside in this cold and grim winter. [But] it is not a long-term solution. What we see today is the long-term solution.”

Earl Crow is among the newly restored building’s first residents. The 47-year old said he spent most of the past three years living in a tent in Crab Park, in part because he was uncomfortable in other Downtown Eastside residential hotels.

“They have no respect for the people who live there,” Crow said. “There’s no restroom in the room. And the one at the end of the hall is clogged and full of shit.”

Crow also offered his perspective on the Downtown Eastside.

“Skid row is a place in your mind, not in your city,” he said.

Monte Paulsen reports on housing for The Tyee.

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