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Teenage housing nightmare opens for business in the Downtown Eastside

Atira CEO Janice Abbott drops bomb on Imouto House opponents

They tried to keep it quiet, but when exposed, they found two teens and stuck them inside. Imouto House is open for business.

A quick history lesson: Last March, city council rubberstamped a social housing proposal from Atira Womens Resource Society, the non-profit wing of the Atira social housing empire, which grows exponentially with the Downtown Eastside. According to the plan, Atira will house up to 25 teenage girls (ages 16 to 19) in the old International Inn (renamed Imouto, little sister in Japanese) at 120 Jackson -- ground zero for drugs and prostitution. The only adult on-site a so-called house mom. Most of the girls will be aboriginal.

And council barely noticed. Before the vote, there was little discussion and no debate. No presentation from Atira, no input from neighbourhood organizations or members of the aboriginal community. Scandalous. Considering the plans unprecedented naturea building full of kids in the Downtown Eastsidecouncil should have staged at least one public hearing. They do it for casinos and bike lanes, why not teenage girls?

Following the vote, which received no media coverage or publication from city hall, womens groups were outraged. In subsequent months, as Atira prepared for Imouto's grand opening, opposition mounted. Groups like Ray-Cam, a longtime neighbourhood institution, lobbied city hall. Aboriginal groups such as AWAN and ALIVE lined up against the plan. We need housing for teenage girls, they said, but it must exist outside the Downtown Eastside, away from pimps and predators.

Meanwhile, Atira, led by CEO Janice Abbott, made no attempt to reach out to the community. City hall made no attempt to enlighten or inform. Instead, Atira posted a FAQ form deep within the city website and city officials mailed a few postcards last week to neighbours within a two-block radius of 120 Jackson. The postcards, a mandatory notification for any new development, point to the city's website and a labyrinth of links mysteriously identified as 100 Jackson Avenue. That was the extent of neighbourhood consultation. Again, scandalous.

Last Thursday, Atira finally met with roughly 35 neighbourhood residents and advocates including Scott Clark, director of ALIVE, a non-profit organization aimed at urban aboriginals. According to Clark, for two hours, they pleaded with Abbott to halt her Imouto plan. Then, as the meeting closed, Abbott dropped the bomb. Imouto House, she said, opened earlier this month. Two kids live there now, with more to follow.

Brilliant move. Abbott knows the neighbourhood, she's been there for years. She saw the mounting outrage Clark and others had collected more than 1,000 signatures opposing her plan. The petition was destined for city hall. More media was bound to follow. Abbott had to act. She found two kids, pawns in her plan, and moved them into 120 Jackson. Now, when responding to opposition, Abbott can use the kids, the very people her opponents seek to protect, as human shields. If we close Imouto House, she'll say, they're out on the street.

Brilliant yet typical. Abbott, who's married to B.C. Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay, built her empire on hubris and close cooperation with B.C. Housing, which doles out taxpayer millions to Atira and other social housing firms. During a four-year period beginning in 2007, Atira received $21,459,729 from B.C. Housing and assumed management duties at 13 government-owned hotels. In July, Atira opened a $26.8 million housing project on Abbott Street, and last September B.C. Housing helped secure a $1,443,600 mortgage for 120 Jackson, Atira's wild plan for teenage girls. And so on.

It's been nearly 10 years since Willie Pickton, and what have we learned? Despite cries from the community, we have no rigorous exit service infrastructure for prostituted women. While B.C. Housing dumps millions into the Downtown Eastside, the province is unable to provide healthy housing options for young girls outside the neighbourhood. And now, in the same neighbourhood where dozens of women vanished forever, a two-storey brick building will house up to 25 teenage girls.

I hope and pray that the fierce opposition to Imouto House at 120 Jackson was unnecessary. But if history is any guide, tragedy looms large.

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Twitter: @MarkHasiuk