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Donnie Rosa Becomes the New CEO of Atira

‘My style is to be present,’ they say, pledging to tour the organization’s buildings.

Jen St. Denis 4 Apr 2024The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on X @JenStDen.

Donnie Rosa is stepping into the top job at the province’s biggest supportive-housing provider, taking the reins from an interim CEO who took charge of Atira after a major government spending scandal.

Rosa became general manager of the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation in 2020, leading the parks department during the COVID-19 pandemic when both homelessness and park usage increased.

Rosa then became an executive director at the Squamish Nation, holding a large portfolio that included new housing development, land acquisition and non-police solutions to community safety.

Rosa will start work at Atira on April 22, taking over from interim CEO Catherine Roome. Roome stepped into the role following a damning government investigation that found the former CEO of BC Housing, Shayne Ramsay, had repeatedly violated conflict of interest rules when he pushed for public money to go to Atira, which was then headed by his wife, Janice Abbott.

The province’s investigation found that Atira’s funding had ballooned between 2016 and 2022 and Atira had become BC Housing’s “largest funding recipient,” according to the investigation report.

Ramsay left BC Housing in September 2022, while Abbott stepped down from Atira in May 2023, shortly after the province’s investigation was made public. The investigation did not find that Ramsay or Abbott had personally benefited from the conflict of interest breaches.

Roome, who previously led Technical Safety BC, pledged to focus on improving safety at Atira buildings and on fixing the organization’s governance practices, some of which an internal report referred to as “free form” and “rushed.” Under Roome’s tenure, several board members have been replaced and new senior staff members have come on board.

Atira’s primary mission is to provide safe housing for women and gender-diverse people, but the organization also runs several single-room occupancy buildings for all genders. The organization’s safety track record has been under scrutiny following a fatal fire at the Winters Hotel that killed two vulnerable tenants, and The Tyee recently reported on serious safety concerns raised by two other service providers at the St. Helen’s Hotel.

The Tyee spoke to Rosa about their new role and the future of Atira.

The Tyee: Can you tell me what appealed to you about this role?

Donnie Rosa: What an exciting time for Atira. I've watched over the last year and a bit where the organization went through some transformational change, and just watching what Catherine and the new board have done in terms of financial transparency, governance and [improving] safety.

That the staff have, throughout this tumultuous time, been rock stars. I just feel like it's an organization that's a good place. I'm super excited to take it into the next decade.

I feel a very personal connection to the purpose of serving and protecting women, children and gender-diverse folks. Every one of us has our own story and mine draws me really close to the mission for this organization. So this is kind of the pinnacle of my career, in my humble opinion.

I understand there are still some financial reviews going on inside the organization. Do you know anything about the status of those reviews?

I know that the work continues. I know that Catherine and the board have done some heavy lifting in terms of operational and financial excellence. This is an ongoing thing.

What your goals are for the organization? Is there any specific thing you want to focus on?

Atira is still a key player in the supportive-housing sector and it’s a thought leader.

I've always believed in the power of community. Whether I was with the park board or with the [Squamish] Nation, the power of community has just been mind-blowing for me. So I think that those collaborative partnerships will be a focus for me. That's always been my focus. And I am so excited to start working with this staff team and to start really moving in a direction where everybody is proud and we can celebrate the staff the way we should.

Speaking about the staff, there are still some tough transitions going on. I just reported that the Atira Workers Housing Co-op would be closing. And that co-op was a response to workers struggling with not being paid a lot. And then there’s the situation where a lot of workers are living in Atira buildings, meaning their landlord and employer are the same. What are your thoughts about some of those dynamics?

When I first heard about the workers co-op housing, I thought it was just brilliant, in theory. I can't wait to roll up my sleeves to figure out how do we approach this in a way that we're doing the best we can by the workers who are living there now, and what's the way forward?

One of the things that Catherine Roome has been talking about a lot recently is the need for more funding from BC Housing. Do you think you're going to have to continue to lobby for more funding?

I think that appropriate funding to make sure that we have safe spaces will always be a priority. I can't get into the details of that, but I can say that I will work hard to ensure my relationship with BC housing is strong.

Are you planning to tour all of the Atira buildings when you first start?

Absolutely. My style is to be present. I'm not someone who sits at a desk. I plan on touring every site, I plan on meeting with all of the staff. My goal is to be present in the community.

During the Winters Hotel inquest, I was struck by the comments from some of the senior Atira staff when they were making comments like “The population that lives in these SRO buildings, they're not able to do fire drills. It's impossible to do fire drills.”

I’m curious if that concerns you, and if you think work needs to be done in terms of assumptions about who lives in the SROs?

I think that my understanding will grow as I tour the buildings and as I meet people. And I think that I have the opportunity, being new in this position, to bring in a curiosity that will get me answers to those kinds of questions.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Housing

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