Handful of homeless Vancouverites turn down housing because of neighbourhood protests

At least five people who have spent years on the streets turned down an offer to live in a new apartment development for the homeless in Marpole, the property manager says.

A pair of residents take CBC inside their new homes in the unique, temporary development in city's south end

Shawn Walters, 42, has spent most of the past year living in a tent in Pacific Spirit Regional Park in Vancouver. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

At least five people who have spent years sleeping on Vancouver's streets or in its parks turned down a spot in a brand new apartment development for the homeless because of the level of opposition in the neighbourhood, the property manager says.

"They were afraid because of the protests," says Julie Roberts, executive director of Community Builders, a non-profit organization that operates the 78-unit temporary housing complex in the south-end neighbourhood of Marpole.

"They weren't sure if they were going to be safe."

The project consists of two buildings made up of stackable units that were built in a factory and assembled on site over the course of three months.

It took just three months to assemble the two buildings of stackable, modular units. (Chris Corday/CBC)

It's part of a nearly $300-million investment to build 2,000 temporary homes in the province over the next two years. The units can be quickly assembled on vacant land and deconstructed and moved elsewhere in the future. 

The new Marpole residents began moving in back in mid-February despite thousands of people having signed a petition asking the city to move the housing because it was too close to an elementary school.

'Right idea, wrong location'

Last November, when the project was announced, hundreds of residents from the neighbourhood turned out to protest. They carried placards that read, "Right idea, wrong location," and "Kids' Safety First."

They crowded the sidewalk in front of the work site, forcing BC Housing and the City of Vancouver to get an injunction to disperse the protesters and continue construction. 

But the opposition remains.

Community Builders staff found some of the protesters' signs staked in the dirt in front of the housing units on Feb. 25, after some of the new tenants had already moved in.

People rally outside city hall on Nov. 10, 2017, to protest the Marpole development. (Harold Dupuis/CBC)

Roberts says the signs were quickly removed, but the opposition has made some of the residents very uncomfortable.

"It is definitely affecting their ability to settle in the neighbourhood."

The Marpole site is staffed by at least two people at all times. They provide support to the residents, many of whom haven't lived in an apartment or even cooked for themselves in years. There is also help for those who struggle with addiction and health issues.

Julie Roberts, executive director of Community Builders, says the tenants are well aware of the opposition to the housing project. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

Each room is 260 square feet and comes with its own bathroom and kitchenette. The tenants each pay $375 rent a month.

Officials say it's crucial for this housing project to succeed so it can serve as an example and help quell any opposition at future sites.

"A lot of people are watching," Roberts says.

"We are working really hard to make sure the tenants are settled and they integrate really well with the community."

The new neighbours

The vast majority of the 78 tenants are over the age of 45. 

Shawn Walters is the youngest of the group and has spent most of his 42 years looking for a fresh start. 

"I have a few mental issues, anxiety, depression, things I have to deal with even before I can think about going back to work full time."

He has worked at a carnival and done painting and telemarketing, but for many years, his cocaine addiction controlled most of his life. 

He says he has been clean for the past seven years and is excited to finally have a place to share with his dog, instead of the four-person tent they had been living in.

He pitched it in a park near the University of British Columbia in the city's west side, but he says it wasn't a terrible situation. Everyone in the neighbourhood was very kind to him and he attended a breakfast program, he says.

He heard plenty about the protests in Marpole before he moved in. He says he tries to put himself in some of his neighbours' shoes. 

"If I was kind of sheltered in my life, and I had kids, I think I would be the same way, you know, 'What kind of people are you putting across my elementary school?'" he says. 

"But I think everyone is going to be fine with it in the long run."

A warm welcome from some

While some opponents of the project have gone to court to argue the city did not consult sufficiently with the community, others have embraced the new neighbours. 

Before the tenants started moving in, high school students and some others in the neighbourhood stuffed gift bags with toiletries and placed them in every unit. Beside each was a handwritten note welcoming the tenant to the neighbourhood. 

A few community members filled the cupboards and fridges with cans of soup, pasta and homemade bread.

Students and other community volunteers put together gift bags and cards for the residents. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

For 75-year-old Jerzy Smolinksi, his apartment brings him some stability after being homeless on and off for nearly 25 years. 

"It's a very good transition," he says.

Marpole is actually where the Polish immigrant started his life in Canada. 

After arriving in 1983, he delivered papers in the neighbourhood. He went to work as a labourer and on construction projects, but after two failed marriages his life began to unravel. 

For a while he slept in his car, but then he lost that, too. 

"I was disappointed with my life. It was ruined."

He says he spent a lot of time drinking in back alleys. But that started to change in September, when an outreach worker helped him fill out an application for a place in Marpole.

His apartment has a small stereo and a collection of classical CDs. On his kitchen table, there's a vase with a neatly arranged bouquet of pine branches. 

He taped two glossy photos taken from Next Home magazine to the wall.

They show a fancy kitchen and living room from the kind of high-end buildings Smolinski says he once worked on. 

"Finally I have found a place," he says. 

"In this moment, I am happy."

Jerzy Smolinski has been homeless on and off since 1994. For the past four years he's been living in a parking lot near a furniture store. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

About the Author

Briar Stewart

Briar Stewart is a senior reporter with CBC News. For more than a decade, she has been covering stories for television, radio and online. She is based in Vancouver and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart