Saturday’s Article in the Vancouver Sun regarding the DTES SRO’s

Filby, … sees the St. Helen’s as a stepping stone on the path to putting his life back together.

The space is about the size of a large storage locker, located at the end of a hallway with dirty, scuff-marked walls, and part of the entry door is boarded up.

But to Wayne Gaskin, it is a room of his own and he is happy to have it.

Gaskin, 45, is a resident of the Hazelwood, a 100-year-old building on East Hastings used by BC Housing as subsidized single-room accommodation for low-income clients. It is one of 13 such buildings scheduled to be renovated in the coming months at a cost of $116 million — $87 million of which will come from the province and $29 million from the federal government.

Inside, the hallways are well lit by the bare fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling and the space is well ventilated, although a mildly acidic smell can be detected in places. Several wooden door frames on one floor are damaged, particularly around the knobs, and a few doors are boarded up with plywood.

The age of the building is one factor that makes repairs there challenging and expensive, said Elizabeth Hardy, program manager at the Hazelwood, which is run by Atira Property Management Inc.. There are 110 units in the building, and the aging pipes were not designed to deal with that kind of volume, Hardy explained.

Backed-up toilets or showers cause flooding about once a month, and maintenance teams have to break down asbestos-containing walls in order to get at the pipes, which is both time-consuming and costly.

There is also damage inflicted by the tenants themselves, some of whom don’t have the ability to keep a room in working order due to mental health challenges, Hardy said. In one recently vacated room that measured about 10 feet by 12 feet and contained a closet and a sink, the grey tile floors were covered with paint and old chewing gum, the baseboard heater had been pulled out of the wall, and wires dangled from where light fixtures had once been.

Pest control reports obtained by The Vancouver Sun also indicate that insects have been a persistent problem at the Hazelwood. A report dated Aug. 30, 2012 indicated that 31 of the 110 units contained live bed bugs. Several of the affected units had been identified by contractor Bugs Be Gone as being infested as far back as May 2011.

Hardy described pest control as an “ongoing challenge” experienced by operators of all single-room occupancy hotels in Vancouver. There are times when pest control companies are refused entry to the rooms by tenants or can’t enter because the rooms are too cluttered, she said.

Even with all its problems, Gaskin said he much prefers the Hazelwood to his previous accommodation in homeless shelters. Small as the room is, it is his own space, with a television and a door that locks, he said.

Because details of the contract are still being finalized, the timeline and cost for the Hazelwood’s renovation are unclear, BC Housing vice-president of operations Craig Crawford said in a statement. The upgrade will include seismic stabilizing, new drywall, floor resurfacing, and new plumbing and electrical fixtures.

BC Housing finds other accommodation for tenants of buildings who cannot stay on-site during renovations. They are able to return to their original building when the renovations are complete if they wish, Crawford said.

Renovations made a big difference at the St. Helen’s Hotel on the Granville strip, said program manager Ceone Veldman. The 96-unit St. Helen’s used to be “really gross,” with carpets that were difficult to fully clean, and Veldman, an asthmatic, said she found it physically difficult to be in the building.

The St. Helen’s, also managed by Atira, was renovated between 2008 and 2010 at a cost of $6.7 million. The ceilings are now higher than at the Hazelwood, the paint job largely unmarred, the light softened by covered fixtures, and the doors open and shut with a key-card lock. There are more bathrooms and showers per floor with newer fixtures.

The rooms also feel bigger. Resident Martin Filby has space for a medium-sized TV, a small fridge, a table, a sink, his bed and a scratching post for his black cat, King.

Filby, who is 36 and moved into the St. Helen’s from the Occupy Vancouver encampment, said it is the best single-room accommodation he has stayed in in Vancouver. While he has seen both bedbugs and mice there — though not in his own room — pests are much less prevalent at the St. Helen’s than other places he has lived.

Filby receives a small honorarium to do some cleaning at the hotel and said he has seen some “nasty stuff” there, especially in the bathrooms. This is mostly due to the tenants, many of whom struggle with physical and mental health issues as well as addiction challenges, he said.

“We’re all on different scales here. Some people don’t know how to look after themselves and some people do. And I think the ones that do can show the ones that don’t how to have pride in your floor.”

Filby, who struggled with mental health and substance-abuse challenges but has now been clean for two years, sees the St. Helen’s as a stepping stone on the path to putting his life back together. He hopes to get back into his old line of work as a cook.

“I’m settling down … going to work on myself right now, deal with some problems and then get back into the kitchen.”

Read the article on the Vancouver sun website, and watch the short video here