British Columbia

Housing for transgender, two-spirit people opens in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

Ross-Aoki House, a former hotel, has been converted into dedicated housing for transgender, two-spirit and gender-diverse people. But at least one community advocate has concerns about the organization managing the project.

At least one advocate has concerns about the organization managing the project

Ross-Aoki House, a century-old 24-room hotel, was purchased by the City of Vancouver in 2019 for $3.8 million, using revenue from the Empty Homes Tax. (Google Street View)

New housing for transgender, two-spirit and gender-diverse people is set to start accepting residents in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. 

Ross-Aoki House, a century-old 24-room hotel, was purchased by the City of Vancouver in 2019 for $3.8 million, using revenue from the Empty Homes Tax.

The city has appointed Atira, a non-profit society that runs several other housing projects in the city, to manage the building. 

"As a person who has worked in the DTES for 17 years and is trans themselves, I'm pretty excited about it," said Aaron Munro, a director with Atira who is overseeing the project.

Munro said the rates of death and violence for transgender, two-spirit and gender diverse people on the street are high, and this housing will ideally make people safer. 

"I really see this as an opportunity to right a lot of wrongs that have happened and still happen to these courageous people."

Munro realizes, however, that this isn't a blanket solution to LGBTQ homelessness in the DTES. He said instead it's a place to start learning about how advocates can create more safe and inclusive housing in the neighbourhood. 

"We do have an opportunity to build a model along with the people who are living in the building and staff who also have shared lived experience," he said.

The idea is to create an "intentional" community, where Atira gathers feedback from residents about what they need in terms of resources or security. 

They also plan to hire someone to complete a development evaluation for the first six months, providing real-time feedback so they can adjust based on what tenants need.

"Ross-Aoki House presents an important opportunity to create equitable housing that prioritizes under-served communities who face barriers to accessing safe, affordable, and culturally appropriate housing," said Celine Maboules, Vancouver's managing director of homelessness services and affordable housing programs.

Concerns about Atira

Not everyone is convinced the project is a great idea.

Sandra Laframboise, a 40-year advocate who identifies as Métis, transgender and two-spirit, sent a letter to media, members of city council and B.C. Attorney General David Eby voicing concerns about Atira, asking the city to cancel the contract. 

"Safe housing or supportive housing is a big, big thing," she said.

"When I heard the contract was awarded to Atira, something inside my spirit jolted me."

She said she's concerned about violence at another property run by Atira. There have been two homicides at the Gastown Hotel in 12 months. 

Laframboise said she'd like to see the city consult with the transgender, two-spirit and gender-diverse community so they can choose a more appropriate organization to lead the project. 

Though he was unable to comment on how Atira was awarded the contract, Munro said people from these communities have been waiting for safer housing in the Downtown Eastside for a long time.

"Some people might be suspicious about this service," he said.  

"They aren't making that suspicion up. Being suspicious of services is actually smart for this community and holding services accountable is great work."

To hear Aaron Munro's interiew on CBC's On the Coast click here: 

A new housing project for transgender people has opened up in the downtown eastside - and they want to teach other projects how to create a meaningful community within the residents. The project coordinator and director of Atira Society tells us more. 6:52

With files from On The Coast