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Hell hotel finds new life as haven

Empress provides housing for vulnerable Vancouver women
The B.C. government provided $350,000 to Atira Women's Resource Society to renovate and manage 36 units in what was a notorious single-room-occupancy hotel on Alexander Street. Photo Dan Toulgoet

The drug dealer doesn’t live there anymore.

He was evicted.

But he was on the corner last Friday morning, lurking.

Inside the old building in which he lived, there now exists surveillance cameras and an alarm system. The security provisions allowed “Jenna” to enjoy the serenity of the same morning as she walked along a quiet hallway in her pajamas.

“We’re warm and off the street and safe and we actually have a home,” she said from inside the former Seaview single-room-occupancy hotel in the 300-block Alexander Street.

It was a different story for Jenna in the summer.

She pointed down a narrow hallway to a room where she said dealers installed a locked metal gate. Inside, she said, they tortured her and other women. Young people, she said, also died of drug overdoses in the 1912 hotel.

“Now it’s totally done a 180 and it’s clean,” said Jenna, who was homeless for two years.

The building’s history was notorious, or “profoundly checkered,” as Janice Abbott, the CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society, described in a tour. Atira now manages the privately owned hotel.

“There were a group of alleged drug dealers who lived here and women were being brought in and tortured — head shaved, lit on fire, raped, assaulted,” said Abbott, whose non-profit along with the help of the Vancouver Police Department rid the hotel of the gang, including the dealer hanging outside the building Friday.

The women, she added, have been afraid to pursue charges against the men for fear of retribution. Moving in to the same hotel where she was tortured was a concern for Jenna — who slept the first night with her light on — but her options were limited. The police continue to work with Atira to ensure the hotel doesn’t revert to the horrible place it was.

“The VPD have been all over this and been absolutely fabulous to work with through this process — they are keeping us safe,” Abbott said.

The building, renamed the Empress Rooms, has become a refuge for Jenna and 35 other women who would otherwise be living on the street. The hotel got a new coat of paint, new floors and a renovated kitchen.

Tenants, whose rent is $375 per month, are guaranteed at least two meals per day and have access to professionals for whatever health or personal problems need to be addressed.

The B.C. government provided $350,000 for the renovations and management of the building. The money helped pay to have two staff on duty around the clock and employ a security guard.

Attorney General Suzanne Anton toured the hotel Friday and said the government is committed to the safety of vulnerable women. Anton visited the Empress Rooms on the National Day of Remembrance and a day where temperatures dipped below zero degrees Celsius.

“The goal here is to help women get into more permanent housing and into better circumstances,” said Anton, standing in the hotel’s kitchen. “That need is always around. People come and go and they have different circumstances in their lives, so it’s very important to have a safe place for women to get themselves back into a better personal space.”

The demand for housing for women is so great in the Downtown Eastside that Abbott said “we could probably fill this building a couple of times over. And if we took into consideration women who are living in unsafe buildings elsewhere in the community — yes, the need is huge.”