The new operators of Alouette Heights have changed how the place has run in the six months they’ve been in charge.
A walled-off compartment for entrance security, more cameras and more control of who’s coming and going into the supportive housing building on Brown Avenue at 222nd Street are some of the changes that Coast Mental Health has put in since taking over March 1.
As for the hangers on, the guests, both wanted and unwanted who were not registered tenants, but who were living there with tenants – they’re long gone.
“I can tell you, when we took over, there were more problems in that building than advertised,” said Darrell Burnham, CAO with Coast Mental Health
The agency took over from the Alouette Home Start Society, which opened the building in 2012, but in 2016 asked B.C. Housing to find a new operator.
Burnham said some of the guests who were living with tenants in the studio suites were intimidating others. Drug dealing and consumption was going on, he added, and that drug activity may still go on, but not as much.
Part of the change involves more physical security with doors, buzzers and cameras to control who’s coming and going from the building.
A glass booth allows staff to check who’s entering and leaving the building. Residents have their own key fobs, but guests have to be escorted inside and also have to leave their ID at the desk.
“As a guest, you just can’t wander into the building and through the building. And frankly, we had many unauthorized guests and many who were causing trouble,” Burnham said.
“Our goal is to make it as safe as possible. I think it’s really improved for the last three months for sure,” Burnham said.
One of the residents, Jacqueline Kaszas, isn’t happy with the changes.
“Alouette Heights has been turned into a jail,” she said in an e-mail.
She doesn’t like having to be buzzed into the building after 11 p.m., and says that residents are being abused emotionally because their friends aren’t allowed in the building.
She said the glass booth now looks like a cheque-cashing business, cutting off connections with staff.
“It’s like we are all violent offenders and we are paying rent to be in jail and it’s unfair and unjust what they have done to us in our home.”
Tenants pay either the shelter portion of their income assistance cheques or 30 per cent of their monthly salaries in rent.
Burnham said that a citizen’s advisory committee has been formed, and will meet twice a year, and residents can now get a light breakfast every day.
That offers people a good start to the day and helps staff connect with residents.
All the residents have signed tenancy agreements, similar to the ones signed with the Alouette Home Start Society.
“And they’re standard form agreements. They’re not special agreements,” Burnham said.
“Our motive really is safety for the building … to develop some practices that make sure the tenants are getting their needs met.”
People can still be evicted if they’re causing problems, although no one has been evicted since Coast Mental took over.
But only a few, three or four, permanent residents have been able to move into their own apartments, Burnham said.
“The cost of housing, for rental housing, is really high.”
Even modest apartments at the $700 a month rate, are hard to find.
“It’s almost impossible to find affordable housing out there. People are ready to move on, but they can’t afford it, even if they can get a rental supplement so they can move to a market apartment.”
Building manager Jason Payne said many of the residents in Alouette Heights have been in Maple Ridge 20 years or longer.
“A lot of people love this community and they want to stay in this community, but there are not many places for them to go,” Payne said.
Outreach staff are looking as far as Mission and Abbotsford for rental suites.
“The rental market is just out of control.”
Alouette Heights opened in 2012 with the goal of giving people a place to live for a year or two, as they moved on to more independent housing.
As of April 2016, 74 people had moved from the building into their own apartments, while 16 were there who’d been there since it opened.
Maple Ridge Coun. Gordy Robson said Alouette Heights was originally supposed to house people living under a contract or agreement to move forward in their life, instead of as full-fledged tenants.
“I think the original intent was good,” Robson said.
“I don’t know what we’ve done other than build another problem apartment block.”
Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read said the movement of people into independent housing became more critical when Cliff Avenue tent camp was cleared in October 2015. Half a dozen people from that tent city moved into Alouette Heights.
“Some of those people had been there since the doors opened and they weren’t getting better and transitioning out to the market,” Read said.
“If a facility is built with the purpose of transitioning people on then people should transition on.”
Read said the province needs to be accountable for that. That raises the question about many service providers, such as the Salvation Army and other groups, she added.
“Are they given the right amount of support to get people to the stages that they are expected to get them to.”
Read expects that Coast Mental Health will help the residents.