the province transformed a Hastings Street hotel from hell to
Monte Paulsen, 29 Oct 2009, (Second in the Homeless Report Card
last time I was here, I was scared.
Backpackers Inn was nothing less than an indoor drug bazaar where
violence was just part of daily routine. Truth be told, it wasn’t
so much the millions of bedbugs, thousands of roaches, hundreds
of rats, or dozens of petty criminals that worried me; rather,
it was the hovering presence of a charming but lethal mid-level
it was with more than my customary measure of curiosity that I
returned to 7 West Hastings. I was surprised by what I found.
In less than two years, the Backpacker’s Inn has been transformed
from B.C.’s worst drug hotel into one of the best examples
of the province’s effort to end homelessness.
Beacon Hotel — as the building has been re-branded —
is one of 23 aging residential hotels owned or operated by BC
Housing in the Downtown Eastside. All but one of those are expected
to be reopened by January.
of the $144 million investment — $90 million to buy the
hotels and another $54 million to fix them up — have noted
that because most of these hotels were occupied prior to purchase
or lease by the province, and because hotels including the Backpackers
literally evicted former tenants to make way for renovations,
the reopening of these 1,325 rooms will not reduce Vancouver’s
homeless population on anything approaching a one-person, one-room
like the aging Victorian hotel on Hastings Street, many of the
province’s 23 single-room occupancy — or SRO —
hotels are being remade in something fundamentally different from
what they were before.
tenants of the Backpackers Inn lived like sharecroppers, perpetually
in debt to the drug dealers who ran the place, while the residents
of the Beacon Hotel shuffle the tidy hallway in freedom. And with
bare-bones nursing and outreach teams on-site in some buildings,
the new residents of these old buildings have a chance to begin
the long process of recovering from the addictions and other mental
illnesses that have trapped so many of them in homelessness for
first clue to the transformation of the former Backpackers Inn
stands atop of the front stairs. It’s a door, and it’s
ordinary entry replaces a heavy steel hatch, complete with bars
that slid into sockets on the back. Situated atop a steep stairway,
the solid steel barricade was impervious to assault by ordinary
police has a lot of trouble in here. They were never able to bust
the operation,” said Nikolas Longstaff, who manages the
Beacon for the Portland Hotel Society, under contract to the province.
during a previous visit to the Backpackers, I overheard a shouting
match between police in the stairway and a manager crouched near
the barricaded door. The manager had a phone in one hand. On the
phone was a lawyer, advising him on what to say to the police.
second clue is inside the manager’s booth. It’s a
computer screen that monitors an array of 26 cameras mounted throughout
the building. There were monitors in the old booth, too. But while
the Backpackers cameras were all aimed at the street outside,
most the Beacon cameras watch the hallways.
cameras were all trained outwards,” Longstaff told The Tyee.
“Instead of being there to protect the safety and security
of the people inside the building, they were all trained out to
make sure that nobody in a law enforcement capacity could enter
the building without everybody knowing,” he said.
buying, get out!’
used to be a guy sitting at the front desk with an air horn. If
the police did manage to enter through the front door, he would
give a big honk on the air horn and hell, ‘Six Up,’”
Longstaff continued. “Pretty much everybody in here was
employed by, um, the gentleman you mentioned earlier.”
is veteran of the Stanley New Fountain Hotel on Blood Alley. There
isn’t much he hasn’t seen. And so it’s no surprise
he made the same choice The Tyee made in my 2008 report and again
here: This particular ‘gentleman’ ain’t dead,
and we ain’t going to name him.
signature remains scrawled across the back of a cheap veneer cabinet
in room 105. Handwritten with something like a Sharpie, it reads,
“Not buying, get out!”
bars had been mounted between the cabinet and the wall below,
creating a secure wicket through which drugs were sold from a
secure chamber to an anteroom.
used to be a wall safe over there,” Longstaff explained.
“And there was a chute-and-pulley system outside the windows,
so that if the cops did come to do a raid, these guys would just
put it up into a bucket. It got taken upstairs, down another chute,
and out the back door.”
was the retail operation. Wholesale business happened upstairs.
was a big, large-scale operation,” Longstaff said. “I’ve
heard different numbers. Some say $90,000-a-day was flowing through
housing’ with support services
bars are gone now. So are the roaches, the rats, the rot and the
stench that used to permeate the building.
Housing added more bathrooms (15 for 38 residents), a new ventilation
system and repaired plaster and trim throughout much of the building.
Additional upgrades were made at the request of the Portland Hotel
Society in order to bring the building up to its safety specifications.
has moved a couple into the former drug retail room, which, as
a result of its previous design, is now the only unit in the building
with both a sitting room and a bedroom.
given them this nice big room to give them a step up,” Longstaff
said. “They’re both former addicts. They used to be
addicted to crystal meth. Both have gotten clean.”
is the case in most of BC Housing’s 23 buildings, there
is no treatment for mental illness or addiction offered in the
low-barrier Beacon Hotel.
just housing,” Longstaff said. “But tenants can come
to us at any time. If they are motivated to get clean, we are
absolutely there to help them.”
room next door to suite 105 is an outreach office where staff
help connect residents with counselors, welfare workers, or other
service providers. Across the hall is a health office with a nurse
scheduled to be on-site about 20 hours a week. Around the corner
is one of three kitchens; a hot lunch is served daily.
one meal a day — often just macaroni and cheese, or chili
— that makes a huge difference in their lives,” Longstaff
said. “Instead of going out and scoring more dope, they
might just go downstairs, have a meal, then go back upstairs and
watch a movie.”
is better than all of ‘em’
Hanson was one of the first to move in to the new Beacon Hotel
in mid-September. He got a room in the front, with windows overlooking
kind of like it. It’s nice and big,” said Hanson,
one of 30 men and 8 women who now call the Beacon their home.
cleaner. Healthier. I weigh more,” he chuckled, his soft
blue eyes peering out over a scraggly beard.
is six months clean. He moved to the Beacon from the Onsite recovery
program, which is connected to the supervised injection facility
known as Insite. The 47-year-old said the last time he was clean
was in the early 1990s.
a decade lived on and off the streets of the Downtown Eastside,
Hanson had lived in several residential hotels that resembled
the old Backpackers.
Brandiz. The Columbia. The Chelsea.” He rattled off the
list of drug hotels he’d called home.
people were knocking on the door all the time. Anything they could
try to get out of you, basically. It was constant, through the
day and night. Rigs. Food. Cigarettes. You name it,” Hanson
said. “This is better than all of ‘em. It’s
hopes that over time, the number of tenants like Hanson will overtake
the number still in active addiction.
first step is just getting a home, right? The first step is just
getting a roof over your head and a door with a key,” he
know the play. We know the players.’
order for that to happen, Longstaff has to keep drug dealers and
other predators out of the building. Their ongoing attempts to
return are among the most persistent risks faced by each of BC
Housing’s 23 residential hotels in the Downtown Eastside.
For without the safe environment described by Hanson, aging hotels
such as the Beacon could quickly revert into hell holes like the
Backpackers — except next time, they’d be hell holes
owned by BC taxpayers.
know the play. We know the players,” Longstaff said.
always starts off as a party,” he chuckled, referring to
the way dealers ply addicts with drugs and sexual favours in order
to gain access to virgin territory such as the Beacon. Then they
collect the debt by taking over the room.
dealers and thugs would walk into somebody’s room and say,
‘Your room is mine now. Get out.’ And the person would
have to continue to pay their rent. And their room would be taken
over as either a drug room or a room to be used for prostitution,”
aim is to keep that element completely out of this building,”
he continued, “and to make the rooms available for the homeless
people who need them.”
fact, the renowned dealer who controlled the Backpackers for years
has already come sniffing around the Beacon.
him and somebody else came to the front door,” Longstaff
said. “They were just checkin’ it out, seeing what
was going on.” Longstaff
spoke with him via the intercom, but did not buzz him in.
talked,” Longstaff said. “He was told that what happened
here before, that wasn’t going to be happening again.”