Finding dignity in a dingy hotel room

Liz Evans houses drug addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill. "Sometimes they die," said the executive director of Vancouver's Portland Hotel Society. But more often, they thrive.

Liz Evans houses drug addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill.

“Sometimes they die,” said the executive director of Vancouver’s Portland Hotel Society.

But more often, they thrive.

It all started at a rundown hotel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, called the Portland.

Twenty years ago, the old building was leased by a local NGO to offer affordable social housing to some of the area’s homeless.

Evans, then a 25-year-old nurse working in ER, was hired to manage the building.

“It was supposed to be straightforward social housing with people living independently,” said Evans.

But word got out that a nurse was running the project, and local service groups began sending “more complicated” clients to the Portland.

Soon, Evans and the building’s janitor found themselves dealing with the most complex cases of mentally ill and dually diagnosed people in Vancouver.

“I was 25 and pretty idealistic and thought, ‘We can handle it,’” she said.

It wasn’t long until 40 of the hotel’s 70 rooms were filled by tenants with “major mental health and addictions issues who were not being stabilized anywhere else in the system.”

Back then, Evans didn’t know a whole lot about addictions and mental health.

“But I did know there was a huge gulf between people in acute crisis, struggling with addiction and mental health issues and the services that were available,” she said.

“I knew it was an important population to target.”

During these early years, one doctor’s visit stood out for Evans.

After examining and assessing many of the Portland’s tenants, the doctor turned to Evans on the way out.

“We should drop a bomb on this building,” he said.

“We’d solve Vancouver’s problems.”

His lack of compassion only steeled Evans’ resolve.

For the next two decades, the young nurse slowly accumulated more and more old housing stock, most of it single-occupancy hotel rooms.

Some of the buildings were “terrible and old,” said Evans.

“But even if it’s crappy stock, it gets people off the streets.”

Sometimes, Evans had to cram three beds into each room and had upwards of 20 tenants sharing one bathroom.

Still, even in these crowded quarters, Evans noticed “a massive difference in people’s lives once they were off the street.”

It provides security, she said.

“And dignity.”

Today, Evans harbours more than 1,000 of Vancouver’s hardest-to-house in 12 buildings, many of them new.

Her staff clean needles out of clogged toilets, wash vomit off walls and dole out meds, all the while offering the tenants support and respect.

“Lots of these people are considered not deserving of housing,” said Evans.

Many are the emaciated, scab-covered, grubby people often spotted talking to themselves or yelling at invisible enemies on the street.

Whitehorse has its share of these characters.

On good nights, they sleep at the Salvation Army shelter, which only has 14 beds.

On bad nights, they might end up passed out on the riverbank, or tucked up against the clay cliffs.

Every winter, three or four of them die.

Most of these deaths occur within walking distance of the shuttered Westmark Klondike.

The 99-room hotel – only open during the summer season – is for sale.

Westmark listed the property in February for $6.8 million.

The building is in better condition than the Portland was when Evans took over 20 years ago.

And its single-occupancy rooms even come with their own bathrooms.

It’s just a matter of finding the money to buy the building and run it as supported housing.

“This never comes easily,” said Evans.

Over the past two decades, she has lobbied government, NGOs and foundations to get funding for the Portland Hotel Society.

“It’s always a giant fight,” she said.

But it’s paid off.

Evans has garnered funding to renovate her older housing stock; she was fundamental in creating Vancouver’s safe injection site; and she’s built new housing stock geared to her down-and-out tenants, including a new $25-million social housing project.

Throughout, Evans has been careful to never overstate her intentions.

“I want to keep people alive and bring dignity to these folks,” she said.

“I have been careful not to promise more.”

Many of Evans’ tenants end up in treatment programs.

That’s a perk.

But it’s not her end goal.

“There are all these middle-class assumptions about what people want from life, and about what ‘success’ means,” she said.

“But who are we to judge?

“I just want to make people’s lives a little easier.”

Evans constantly finds herself trying to explain why housing hardcore addicts is a good use of funding.

People argue these addicts just need to hit rock bottom – that they’re just taking advantage of the system, she said.

“But these are not willful issues.”

The violence, poverty and abuse many of Evans’ tenants have experienced is unthinkable, she said.

“But at the same time, there is a lot of resilience.”

From the outside, people might not be able to distinguish addicts living on the streets from Evans’ tenants.

They might both be “using” and look disheveled.

But there is an invisible difference.

Evans’ tenants have more stability.

“And from that stability comes more meaningful engagement,” she said.

Evans’ tenants have been treated, repeatedly, like their lives don’t matter.

“They have been marginalized and told they are failures,” she said.

By offering them a room in one of her new buildings, or one of the older run-down hotels, Evans extends a hand.

And suddenly their lives “become a little less lonely and estranged,” she said.

For the first time in what has, in many cases, been years, “they are involved in meaningful engagement,” even if it is just with the building’s staff, or the tenant next door, she said.

Time and again, Evans has watched as lost souls slowly found meaning, even through something as simple as improved nutrition or a medical routine.

Evans never evicts her tenants, although occasionally, if they end up in jail, the room is reallocated to someone else in need.

“Why would we evict people when the point is to alleviate homelessness?” she said.

In Whitehorse, the Northern City Supportive Housing Coalition had plans to build a 20-room supported apartment complex in downtown Whitehorse with around-the-clock staff and access to counselling, addictions services and life skills.

And, unlike the city’s detox centre, residents wouldn’t have to be sober to enter the building.

The coalition found a location with the necessary zoning, secured in-kind support from eight different nonprofits, drew up a solid business plan and secured $10,000 in seed funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

The project’s total cost is expected to be $1.8 million. The housing coalition hoped to get half of that from a federal grant administered by the Yukon Housing Corporation.

But it’s been more than a year, and the Yukon government has not come through with any of this funding.

BC’s provincial government supplies the majority of the Portland Hotel Society’s funding.

The government has realized it’s a good use of money, said Evans.

“Without us they’d be worse off.

“The reality is, do you pay to resolve the problem now, or do you pay more later?”

One thing is certain, said Evans.

“If you’re in stable housing, your chances of succeeding go up.

“We can decide, as a society, if we want people to have better lives or not.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at