Non-profit Atira backs recommendations from inquest into Vancouver SRO deaths

Click to play video: 'Winters Hotel inquest: Jury recommends changes to SRO policies'
Winters Hotel inquest: Jury recommends changes to SRO policies
The jury at a coroner's inquest into a deadly Vancouver fire says the provincial government needs to make fundamental changes to the way it funds and operates single-room occupancy buildings.. Alissa Thibault reports – Feb 6, 2024

The non-profit that ran a Vancouver SRO where two people died in a fire more nearly two years ago is backing “100 per cent” the recommendations stemming from a B.C. coroner’s inquest.

Atira Women’s Resource Society said Tuesday that keeping staff and tenants safe in century-old buildings “that house people with very complex needs is a challenge at the highest level,” and that “no reasonable investment” in such buildings will ensure that outcome.

Its comments come a day after the inquest jury found the deaths of Mary Ann Garlow and Dennis James Guay to be “accidental.” Their bodies were found in the wreckage of the Winters Hotel at Abbott and Water streets more than a week after the fire on April 11, 2022.

Click to play video: 'Winters Hotel inquest: Jury makes several recommendations after deadly fire'
Winters Hotel inquest: Jury makes several recommendations after deadly fire

Jurors released 50 recommendations — many overlapping — targeting BC Housing, the ministers of public safety and housing, the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services (VFRS), Vancouver Coastal Health and Vancouver police. Among them was a call for BC Housing to “phase out or eliminate” the funding of SROs in privately-owned buildings.

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“We look forward to meaningful action by BC Housing to implement all the recommendations,” Atira wrote in a news release. “Although these have been difficult weeks for all involved, we are confident the learnings and recommendations, once implemented, will have positive impacts that benefit our staff and tenants at Atira, as well as other housing sites.”

In an interview, Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said his ministry is reviewing the inquest recommendations and the province’s goal is to phase out SROs. There are more than 20 such buildings in the Downtown Eastside alone, he said, and it “will take a little bit of time to do so.”

“We have been providing supports, through SRO Collaborative and other organizations, to ensure that people have supports that are living in SROs — while we are working on a development plan with the City of Vancouver, with the federal government,’ Kahlon said.

“We will have more to say that on that in the coming months, but we are working on a plan to, over time, move away from SROs to have different types of housing available to people.”

Global News has also reached out the Downtown Eastside SRP Collaborative for comment.

Click to play video: 'Winters Hotel inquest: Atira director testifies'
Winters Hotel inquest: Atira director testifies

In addition to killing Guay, 53, and Garlow, 63, the disaster at the Winters Hotel hospitalized five people and displaced 140. The four-storey heritage building also contained a women’s shelter and seven businesses.

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Over nearly two weeks of witness testimony, the inquest heard that no one who worked in the building or inspected it was aware of any fire drills taking place there. Jurors also heard that Atira staff who worked in the SRO didn’t have enough fire safety training.

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Hoarded items often crowded the doorways and hallways, and three people testified that they had seen, or been told about, a chained or blocked door or fire exit inside the building.

Officials at VFRS and the City of Vancouver further testified that the SRO had “unsatisfactory” inspection results in April and June of 2021, as well as another 18 life-safety violations on its record, including missing smoke detectors, items hanging off the sprinkler lines, and non-operational fire door closures.

Click to play video: 'Winters Hotel classified as ‘low-risk’ before fatal fire'
Winters Hotel classified as ‘low-risk’ before fatal fire

The jury recommended that BC Housing work with SRO owners and operators to ensure lease agreements hold them to higher standards of fire safety. That includes upgrading smoke detectors, keeping backup fire extinguishers, providing comprehensive training to staff and tenants on emergency procedures, and ensuring individual fire plans are in place for people with disabilities.

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Jurors also advised BC Housing to fund and maintain tamper-proofing devices for all fire safety equipment.

“We know some of these privately-held SROs are in tough shape,” Kahlon said. “We’re doing an inventory of how many of these units exist, and we’re actively making plans to build housing that people have better options to live in than these SROs.

“It won’t happen overnight, but we know that this work needs to happen. That’s what we’ve been pushing with the federal government as well, to make sure that they come to the table, work with us and the City of Vancouver to address this major challenge.”

Click to play video: 'First video from inside Winters Hotel during fire'
First video from inside Winters Hotel during fire

The jury also recommended building inspections consider the needs of individual tenants, that BC Housing coordinate with tenants to determine those needs, and that it keep an inventory of any particular safety amenities or barriers in an SRO building. The jury said BC Housing should also require SRO staff members to check for working smoke alarms monthly and provide safety information in SRO lobbies using tamper-proof bulletin boards.

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Tenants with complex needs should be housed in buildings that meet modern safety codes and standards, jurors added, and BC Housing should study the feasibility of upgrading SROs that don’t.

The inquest heard that one of the tenants who died — Guay — had profound hearing loss, yet no special accommodations were in place to alert him of an emergency evacuation or fire watch. The Winters Hotel manager, Gina Vanemberg, testified that she tried to get him a modification like a flashing light or vibrating bed, but those requests fell flat at BC Housing.

Atira’s managing director, Grant Barton, also testified that Guay should have been placed in a different SRO with strobes to visually alert occupants to a fire.

Click to play video: 'Winters Hotel fire inquest hears testimony from former fire inspector'
Winters Hotel fire inquest hears testimony from former fire inspector

In a Tuesday interview, interim Atira CEO Catherine Roome said she’s not sure a coroner’s inquest was needed to tell housing stakeholders that purpose-built, safe housing is needed for the vulnerable.

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“It’s time,” she said. “I think taxpayers, frankly, want a minimum amount of life, safety. These folks, they deserve that, and yet right now we’re unable to provide that in terms of the building envelope safety.”

Roome said supportive housing groups haven’t “been given the budget” to invest in the maintenance and repair needed for aging buildings like the Winters Hotel.

The April 11 blaze — sparked by unattended candles — was the second in under a week at the aging SRO. On April 8, 2022, the building’s sprinklers extinguished another fire in one of the units.

That day, VFRS issued a notice of violation to Atira, put the building under a fire watch, and ordered it to have the sprinklers reset and the fire systems serviced right away. That wasn’t done before the deadly fire, however, and the building’s sprinklers never deployed.

The inquest heard that Vanemberg didn’t call Royal City Fire Supplies right away on April 8 because it was a Friday night, and she didn’t think the company would respond until Monday. She also testified that she was under instructions not to call companies that would charge overtime, as “budget” was a concern.

Royal City Fire Supplies confirmed before jurors that it does provide weekend service at a premium rate. Atira’s managing director, Grant Barton, later testified that the call for fire servicing should have been made right away, no matter the premium as, “… we would never complain about the money spent there.”

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Click to play video: 'Winters Hotel fire inquest day four'
Winters Hotel fire inquest day four

Roome said BC Housing, a Crown corporation, should be the entity that is either leasing or owning the SRO buildings so it can “put the appropriate level of investment in them, and frankly, have a timeline for replacing them.”

Other jury recommendations include the establishing of an annual multi-stakeholder conference to exchange information and best practices for fire safety and critical incident prevention and response, as well as a task force or working group to identify land that could be developed for shelters, and social and transitional housing.

A full list of recommendation stemming from the verdict on Guay and the verdict on Garlow is available online.

At the inquest, both were described as kind individuals who were giving of their time to others and were valued in the Downtown Eastside community.

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Guay has been described as a music lover and storyteller. In a previous written statement to Global News, his family said he “always saw the good in others,” and was “sweet and kind in nature, and had a smile for everyone.”

Garlow has been described as a “street mom” to many in the Downtown Eastside community. Her niece, Misty Fredericks, told the jury on the first day of the inquest that she was her son John’s “caregiver, always looking out for his well-being, ensuring he was safe and fed.”

John was also a tenant of the Winters Hotel. He jumped from the third storey to escape on April 11, shattering both his legs.

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