After a Saturday fire at an SRO for vulnerable women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, some displaced tenants say they’re choosing to sleep outside rather than in an emergency shelter.
It’s an increasingly common pattern in the neighbourhood as an unusually high number of fires in single-room occupancy hotels have displaced over 200 tenants since April.
The Tyee learned of three additional fires that happened Wednesday night in the Downtown Eastside: one at the Hazelwood Hotel at 344 E. Hastings St.; another at the Pennsylvania at 412 Carrall St.; and a fire in a tent at 67 E. Hastings St.
Fires at SROs are now a “daily occurrence,” said Matthew Trudeau, a public information officer with Vancouver Fire Rescue Services.
While many tenants have been rehoused in other SROs, the situation is straining the city’s stock of available housing for precariously housed people.
Fiona York, an advocate for people living in a tent city at CRAB Park, believes the total number of displaced people this year is closer to 500, including tenants who have been evicted or had to leave SROs so buildings could be repaired.
The fire Saturday at Sereenas Housing for Women affected four units in the 56-room building, with another four units damaged by water.
All the tenants were forced from their homes.
The building operator, Atira Women’s Resource Society, said in a statement that “thanks to Atira, City of Vancouver and BC Housing staff, all women were sheltered by end of day on Saturday.” Many of the tenants should be able to move back in by the end of next week, it said.
But Trina is choosing to stay on the sidewalk in a tent rather than go to the emergency shelter. When The Tyee spoke to Trina Tuesday, she said she had not been able to get any items out of her room and only had what she was wearing at the time of the fire: pyjama pants and a tank top.
Trina’s husband died recently, and she’s four months pregnant. She said she can’t handle being in a shelter with so many other people.
“I’m rebuilding — but I’ll have to rebuild again. I can’t keep losing stuff,” she said.
“I’m not comfortable, and I shouldn’t have to bunk with a bunch of tenants, in a warehouse pretty much. [The city] has the resources and contracts with hotels.”
Jasmine, a sex worker and advocate who lives in a different building in the Downtown Eastside, has been speaking with several displaced Sereenas tenants. She’s concerned that the lack of temporary housing is putting women like Trina at higher risk at a time when there are increased concerns about violence against women in the neighbourhood.
The Tyee is using pseudonyms to refer to Trina and Jasmine for safety reasons.
Atira Women’s Resource Society said in a statement that staff can access fire-damaged rooms to get items that tenants need. But Jasmine said many of the women she’s spoken to haven’t yet recovered their belongings.
Jasmine said she can’t understand why the women’s resource society or advocacy organizations didn’t put out a call for donations, similar to the appeal that was made when the Winters Hotel burned down in April. That fire displaced 143 tenants from both the Winters and the Gastown Hotel next door.
“They need stuff like clothes, makeup, toiletries,” Jasmine said. “Sereenas houses some of the community’s most vulnerable street-based sex workers.”
Atira Women’s Resource Society staff have written a letter to help tenants apply for a crisis grant from the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. Trina said that so far she’s only been able to access a $40 food grant.
The situation isn’t unique to Sereenas Housing for Women. The day after a fire at the privately owned Keefer Rooms at 222 Keefer St. on Sept. 9, Trey Helten posted a photo of a sign on the door of the building that said, “To all tenants: please go to UGM [a homeless shelter] for a bed and food. Due to the fire, the building is uninhabitable.”
“What I didn’t show — 20 residents sitting outside with nowhere to go,” wrote Helten, who works in the Downtown Eastside as the manager of the Overdose Prevention Society.
After the deadly fire at the Winters Hotel on April 11, one tenant chose to stay at a homeless encampment at CRAB Park rather than go to one of the emergency shelters that had been set up.
York said it’s common to see a few people show up at the park after being displaced because of a fire, although they usually don’t stay long.
But she questioned whether tenants of other types of housing, such as market rental or social housing, would be housed at a shelter. In other situations — such as a 2017 fire at a social housing building in East Vancouver — displaced tenants have been put up in hotel rooms.
After the SRO fires, housing providers have scrambled to set up emergency shelters, using spaces like the Japanese Hall and the common room at Woodward’s, a supportive housing building run by PHS Community Services Society.
But not everyone feels comfortable sleeping on a cot with other people all around them, York said. Many people have had bad experiences staying at homeless shelters in the past, like having their belongings stolen or conflicts with staff or other residents.
“They’ve experienced this shock and this trauma of coming out of a house fire, to go from there to a mat on the floor or somewhere they don’t feel comfortable or safe — it’s just retraumatizing,” York said.
BC Housing says relocation to hotel rooms for people displaced by emergencies is decided on a case-by case basis by the local emergency management agency.
The housing agency said that since late July, it’s opened 75 more spaces for people experiencing homelessness in the Downtown Eastside. Those spaces have been either recently renovated SRO rooms, or new shelter spots.
In Vancouver, city staff deliver emergency management services. In response to questions The Tyee sent, city communications staff said the city has supplier agreements with some hotels to use for emergencies, “but it does not give us priority over rooms and we can only access those hotels if they have vacancies.”
The city’s response went on to say that when people are displaced because of a fire, staff take into account how many people need shelter and the services people may need to access, like safe consumption sites.