How to build hope? Start with Plywood and Guts

“How to build hope? Start with Plywood and Guts” by Lisa Rochon was originally posted in the Globe and Mail on April 10, 2009.

The Richmond Olympic Oval is a stellar speed-skating arena. The Shangri-La Hotel glows from within a 61-storey tower of pure luxury. Ecosystems have been nourished along the False Creek shores of the Olympic village. All is apparently happy and sustainable in West Coast Paradise.

Except for the grapes of wrath being played out in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Its residents, many of them addicted to cocaine or heroin, are compressed into a 10-block sinkhole of urbanity. Thousands sleep in alleys or bug-infested hotel rooms. Desperation is on the rise – something you can ignore if you stay on the right side of Gastown or Chinatown, or, of course, simply lift your feet high enough when stepping over bodies on the sidewalk.

Which is what architect Gregory Henriquez used to do – until he couldn’t take it any more. Call the idealist designer naive or ignorant: He admits he’s both. I call him a gutsy architect whose practice is guided by a rare compassion.

To help with a housing crisis that has gotten so bad that some nights 300 people sleep on the wooden pews in First United Church on East Hastings Street, Henriquez has designed temporary shelters that he calls Stop Gaps. Handsome, wooden prefab units invested with a sense of community, they offer a bedroom, a washroom and a front door that declares to the world, “I have an address.”

They’re inspired by the elegant but practical emergency housing designed by Japan’s Shigeru Ban for victims of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. As weather-resistant buildings meant to last up to five years, the Stop Gaps are in fact closer to the modules used to house Alberta’s oil-sands workers – except, here, in the absence of permanent, low-income rental housing, they offer healing from one citizen to another.

But despite the efforts of Henriquez and other activisits (such as Vancouver

politician Jim Green, an early mentor to the architect), Vancouver’s social conscience seems to be paralyzed. Sure, city council recently approved the idea of the Stop Gaps; and progressive Mayor Gregor Robertson has indicated that 120 units could be sited on the parking lot next to the old Continental Hotel at Granville and Pacific avenues. But funding from the provincial and federal governments has not been forthcoming. With that kind of blinkered mentality, it is only a matter of time before Vancouver has to pay the piper.

Henriquez had hoped that, by some miracle of political will, the city might have provoked the construction of 800 units in time for the Olympics. It’s too late for that now. There are six permanent housing projects for assisted living poised to start construction, but three or four years are likely to roll by before they’re completed. Olympic organizers will simply have to hope that tourists don’t travel off the beaten track. That, or they’ll have to count on the police to sweep the drug addicts off the streets.

“I step over five bodies every night to get to my car,” says Henriquez, whose firm, Henriquez Partners Architects, is located just about in the thick of the Downtown Eastside. The firm has designed the $300-million Woodward’s development, featuring a healthy mix of grocery and drug stores, Simon Fraser University’s Centre for the Contemporary Arts, 200 social housing units, 500 market-priced condos, and major public space; and Lore Krill Housing Co-op, whose two human-scale buildings connected by catwalks won a Governor-General’s Medal for Architecture. “You sort of get desensitized to the streetscape over time,” adds Henriquez, who grew up as a privileged Westside boy within the embrace of Vancouver’s Jewish community. “But the last five winters have been colder than ever, and our homeless population is growing every year. It’s more poignant now.”

There are 1,080 shelter beds in all of Metro Vancouver. “The ratio of homeless people to shelter beds is more than 2-to-1,” says Laura Track, housing-campaign lawyer for the Pivot Legal Society, a non-profit group that advocates for the marginalized in the city. “In Vancouver, the official count is that homelessness has doubled,” says Mark Townsend, director of the Portland Hotel Society, the front-line operator of housing for the hard to house in the Downtown Eastside. “We’re not keeping up. We’re actually falling down.”

Working closely with Townsend, Henriquez has designed his shelters with the particularities of the homeless in mind. There’s a place outside to lock your bicycle (or a shopping cart). Every unit comes with an ensuite washroom – a considerable upgrade for residents, given that most of the rooms in the area’s century-old hotels require sharing a toilet with about a dozen people. The Stop Gaps are heated, have nicely detailed wooden overhangs, and are clad in brightly coloured plywood.

Importantly, they’re configured much like an amenable motel, with a courtyard in the middle and a second-storey common area. There’s space for food vans to pull up within the courtyard, allowing for the distribution of meals. The idea – if the B.C. housing ministry or the feds would commit some dollars – is that each community of 48 shelters be staffed by social workers.

Henriquez volunteered to prepare a comprehensive costing analysis and construction-bid package involving a team of collaborators: the Portland Hotel Society; Britco, a local builder with factories in Penticton and Agassiz; and Ian Gillespie of Westbank Projects, builder of the Shangri-La. The team also included LMDG Building Code Consultants, Haebler Construction, and Colbalt Engineering. Everybody volunteered their time.

Each unit can be built and completely outfitted, right down to the furniture and linens, for $50,000. That price includes one solid meal each day for a year. It’s a good deal, especially when you consider that it costs at least that much annually to provide public services for a homeless person, according to Simon Fraser’s Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction.

Why bother? The answer comes down to a simple belief in humanity – one that doesn’t always entrance those who prefer to stick with their perception of Vancouver as postcard-magnificent.

Left on its own, the sickness of the Downtown Eastside will grow. Some day, like the barrios that hang directly over the rooftops of the upper classes in Caracas and Rio de Janeiro, the problem will come knocking in the loveliest of Vancouver’s neighbourhoods. Henriquez has experienced first-hand the level of desperation. His firm has been broken into twice this month, with thieves ripping through the interstitial floor of his office to get at a $2,000 computer.

There’s no elixir, he says, but, there is a quiet dignity afforded by real shelter, says the architect: “Getting people fed every day. Getting them a shower. Getting them shaved. Getting them to talk about what medication they should be on, and how to reconnect to people in their lives. It’s not about getting them to become taxpayers in six weeks, but, bit by bit, to reconnect these people to humanity.”

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