In the lobby of Kevin N.’s building, a small table is piled with disposable masks, bottles of hand sanitizer and a paper bag labelled “hand soap.” There are a couple of cans of pork and beans and a jar of peanut butter.
The table is loaded up regularly with supplies to help keep residents protected during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s part of an effort that’s been going on for over a year in privately-owned single-room occupancy buildings, where tenants have organized to help each other.
Upstairs, Kevin knocks on his neighbour’s door to ask how he’s doing. The elderly man has trouble going up and down stairs and doesn’t leave his room very often, but today he assures Kevin he’s doing OK.
“Because we don’t have elevators in that building, every Thursday I take the food they deliver up to him,” Kevin said.
Wendy Pedersen, a tenant organizer with the SRO Collaborative, said this effort started last year when businesses and many social services suddenly shut down in March as COVID-19 cases began to rise and British Columbians were told to stay home as much as possible.
In single-room occupancy hotels, often called SROs, residents rent small rooms that don’t have their own kitchen or bathroom. Twenty tenants on a floor will often share one bathroom, which isn’t usually stocked with hand soap.
SROs are the housing of last resort for many people in Vancouver. Although Kevin lives in one of the nicer buildings, he says he’s currently sleeping on a yoga mat instead of a bed because of a previous bed bug infestation. His neighbour, Dave, says he moved into the building after getting injured on the job and being homeless for several months.
“I was looking for a place anywhere in the Lower Mainland, and do you think I could find a one-bedroom apartment anywhere for $1,200?” Dave said.
During the first stage of the pandemic in spring 2020, there were fears that the virus could spread widely in the Downtown Eastside, where many people live in poverty in cramped conditions, can’t self-isolate and have pre-existing health conditions.
COVID-19 cases did eventually hit the neighbourhood, and residents from the Downtown Eastside were four times more likely to have to be hospitalized, according to Vancouver Coastal Health. Case numbers have now fallen, thanks to a street-level vaccination campaign that offered shots day after day across the neighbourhood.
The neighbourhood continues to be heavily affected by the poisoned drugs crisis: as the pandemic dragged on, the illicit drug supply also got more dangerous. In 2020, more people in B.C. died from poisoned drugs than ever before.
Pedersen remembers driving around the Downtown Eastside, Chinatown and Strathcona on March 10 and 11 last year, visiting SRO buildings to ask residents if they were prepared for COVID-19.
“We said, ‘Did you know there’s a virus? Are you guys going to need help? Who's the best person for us to work with and talk to?’” Pedersen said. “And we figured out who those people were.”
The SRO Collaborative has been working on a strategy to identify residents who were already playing a leadership role in the buildings, and then work to support those tenants with training, supplies and other resources. The group is now working with tenant leaders in 52 buildings where rooms rent at $750 or less.
“It’s like, who’s at the village well? Who’s talking [to] everybody all day long, who has their door propped open?” Pedersen said.
The same tactic had worked well when it came to putting together a harm reduction program called the Tenant Overdose Response Organizers, or TORO, which the SRO Collaborative has been running inside privately-owned SROs since 2016.
Tenants are trained to use naloxone and on best practices for responding to overdoses. Throughout the pandemic, the collaborative trained over a thousand SRO tenants on overdose response, according to a report produced by the group.
When it came to COVID-19, Pedersen said the SRO Collaborative identified several key needs for residents of privately-owned SROs. They needed basic items to keep themselves and their building clean, like hand soap, cleaning products, paper towels and toilet paper. They also needed PPE like masks, and harm reduction supplies like clean needles and crack pipes for residents who use drugs.
SRO Collaborative members have access to supplies collected at a warehouse space on East Hastings Street, where everything from clothing to bedding to non-perishable food has been sourced or donated.
Richard Schwab first got involved with the SRO Collaborative when his building, a 29-unit SRO in Strathcona, was sold to a new owner. The collaborative helped tenants regain access to the house telephone.
“Everybody united to get supplies here,” said Schwab. “We were doing daily cleaning and masks were provided and hand cleaner. Basically, whatever we needed to help keep the pandemic at bay.”
Building leaders who worked with the SRO Collaborative also worked to keep their neighbours informed of where to go to get tested and vaccinated.
Schwab and Kevin both said they weren’t aware of any COVID-19 cases in their buildings over the entire course of the pandemic.
Food security was another issue Pedersen and other organizers with the collaborative identified. Beyond stocking common areas in buildings with boxes of macaroni and canned goods, the SRO Collaborative has worked with other community groups like Watari and the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House to cook and deliver healthy meals.
Sonya Jackson has years of experience cooking at Vancouver restaurants like Memphis Blues and Cantina. A few years ago, she was injured in an accident and had to stop working full time. Now she cooks for 100 SRO residents once a week at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House. She’s paid for her work, but she also volunteers a couple hours of her time to plan and prep meals.
“When I moved down here about three years ago, I wanted to do something different,” Jackson said. “Something that would actually make me feel better about what I was doing. Working for restaurants is one thing, but when you’re putting food out there and knowing where it is going, it means a lot more than what I was doing before.”
Pedersen said the SRO Collaborative provides meals five times a week to SRO residents, and also provides coupons for meals at two local restaurants, the Ovaltine and the Gain Wah.
The SRO Collaborative runs the programs through a mix of donations and grants and pays building residents for the time they spend delivering supplies or training their neighbours on how to reverse overdoses. During the pandemic, the group was able to take advantage of increased government funding and saw its operating budget grow from $600,000 a year to $1.5 million.
“We’re taking a really community-based, tenant-centred approach,” Pedersen said. “And it’s very autonomous. So we’re just there for the tenants, we’re not there to property manage their buildings, or to evict them.”