Travel

Life Inside Vancouver’s Most Notorious Housing Block

Meet the tenants living in the city’s most complained-about single room occupancy hotels.

by Geoff Webb
May 4 2017, 8:47pm

Jack Gates has lived in the Regent Hotel on the 100 block of East Hastings Street since 2014. The single room occupancy hotel (SRO) is filled with some of Vancouver's poorest residents, housed in small rooms down long corridors with shared bathrooms. It's also one of the city's top violators of the residential tenancy act, with 121 current health and safety issues.

While preparing for bed on an evening last week, Gates noticed a strange smell coming from the bed he'd been using for just over a year.

"I couldn't figure out where the smell was coming from but when I flipped my bed over … dead mice were hanging out of it. It was really smelling bad." Gates told VICE he had "no idea" how long they'd been dead, though they had burrowed a small network of tunnels in the spongy material of the mattress.

According to Gates, he'd complained to the hotel management for months about the building's pest problem, but had nearly given up on getting results. A local advocacy group he works with, called the DTES SRO Collaborative, encouraged him to share his story and draw attention to the situation faced by Regent residents. (Owner Gudy Sahota declined to comment on claims of pests and disrepair).

Gates tied a bow on the mouse-bed mattress and brought it to city hall's doorstep—home to a mayor they identify as failing to protect the interests of people living under inhumane living conditions. "Hopefully this will open his eyes," Gates told a scrum of reporters. "Hopefully [Mayor Gregor Robertson] will finally do something for people that live in SROs like this one."

Gates left the mattress slumped against the Mayor's office along with a message: "Would you sleep on this mattress, Gregor?"

The living conditions inside some notorious SROs came into sharper focus yesterday when Vancouver police released a photo of a pigeon nest made entirely of discarded needles. The photo was held up as a symbol of the province's opioid crisis that has already killed hundreds of people this year.

But even among the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood's most notorious buildings—the Regent and Balmoral have particularly dark reputations—some tenants are still finding ways to stand up for each other and fight for their rights. In the hallways, posters sound the alarm on illegal room searches, and offer opportunity to learn more.

Down the street are other SROs run by non-profit societies, staffed by people trained in harm reduction and overdose response. That "SRO" living has become shorthand for squalor and drug use misses the tight-knit community and support that has sprung up in the face of crisis.

To better understand what Vancouver's poorest residents are facing, VICE met with tenants living in the city's worst housing block, and talked to them about starting new lives, finding safety in numbers, and transitioning from homelessness to new opportunities.

All photos by Geoff Webb.

Alexis pays $450 at the Regent for a room that she's managed to make feel like home. She has a cat named Bambam, whom she credits with her avoiding the worst of the rodent problem. "Everyone in these places should have a cat," she tells VICE. "I'm serious. In the first month I counted 20 mice he killed."

Alexis escorts a fellow tenant back to her room for clean needles. She refuses to drink the water anymore after contracting giardia, a water-borne disease that left her in the hospital.

At both the Regent and Balmoral hotels, tenants are met with "instructions" written in black marker on plywood, glass, walls and doors on how to safely navigate life in their building.

In the 15 years Jeff Manson has lived at the Balmoral, he's found nine dead bodies. "You can smell em three floors up."

Paul was once an oil worker making $200,000 a year in Libya and Iraq. After 10 months living in the Astoria Hotel, he refuses to plug in his TV, touch the fridge or do anything to make it feel too comfortable. "As soon as I can, I'm getting out of here," he says.

Kevin Bouzane is a hip-hop producer and head of Hastings Street Records, running everything off a computer he got for $10 on the street.

"I wouldn't want my mom to come here and visit me. She knows I'm down here and she knows why."


Follow Geoff Webb on Instagram.