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Mennonite-run charity More Than A Roof took over Vancouver’s Sunset Towers on April 1. The organization began instituting changes that have irked some residents, such as a mealtime prayer and a ‘dry’ policy that includes no alcohol in common areas.

At Vancouver’s Sunset Towers, social housing comes with a religious message

Kerry Gold

Published Friday, May. 12, 2017 04:27PM EDT

Last updated Friday, May. 12, 2017 04:31PM EDT

Gabrielle Peters says she has nothing against religion. But she objects to the fact that she must listen to a Christian prayer if she wants to eat dinner in the communal dining hall of her publicly funded social-housing residence.

Ms. Peters thinks the prayer is an intrusion on tenants’ rights.

“I feel that it is an imposition of the landlord’s beliefs on the tenants, who, incidentally, pay for that meal,” says Ms. Peters, who usually makes her own meals in her unit. “This is housing. These are people’s homes. People have a right to feel comfortable and at ease and not have someone else’s religious beliefs imposed on them. As a disabled woman, I just want the right to live my life in the community and enjoy the same rights and freedoms as everyone else.”

Ms. Peters, who uses a wheelchair and receives provincial disability benefits, has lived at Sunset Towers for seven years. Sunset Towers is a two-tower, 475-unit complex at 1650 Haro and 1655 Barclay with 500 residents that was originally built for seniors but has come to house other people who are low income, including people with disabilities, mental illness or addictions. Some residents have jobs.

Ms. Peters was working and completing her education before she developed an autoimmune disease and became physically disabled. Like many other residents at Sunset Towers, such as her neighbours – a former actor, a plumber and a retired nurse – she turned to social housing because of a loss of income. In her case, she also needed an apartment that was adapted for wheelchair use.

But for three years, the provincial government has been off-loading some publicly owned social-housing properties to non-profit groups to either lease or own. In 2014, the province sold off the 20-storey Nicholson Tower at 1115 Nelson St. to a non-profit. BC Housing maintains the very long waiting list of applicants for such housing.

And so, Sunset Towers residents found themselves with new landlords on April 1 of this year in the Mennonite-run charity More Than A Roof (MTR), which has a dozen properties throughout B.C. It started as the Mennonite Central Committee Social Housing Society more than 30 years ago.

When they took over, things started to change in her building, Ms. Peters says.

Staff members in green shirts appeared in the communal areas, she says.

Ms. Peters received a notice that said the building was “dry,” meaning no drugs or alcohol. Security measures were stepped up. An invitation to Bible study was posted in the elevator and lobby. Soulkitchen, a ministry that offers low-cost meals, now runs the dining hall.

“It’s supposed to be social housing to the extent that it’s rent geared to income, for seniors, the disabled, those with mental-health problems, perhaps addiction. Some people are refugee claimants. Some are working. Some people have jobs in the building. I know a woman who was a cashier at No Frills. But they just don’t have enough money to live,” Ms. Peters says.

“I have no problem with Mennonites running housing, or anybody else running housing. But I think you should choose that that’s what you want to live in. And what we all chose was public housing, without any overtones of religion.”

Ms. Peters hadn’t bothered with the weekly dinners, but had heard about the prayers from another concerned resident. So Ms. Peters went to check out the situation.

“This woman appeared and made everybody stop talking and be quiet, and bow our heads. And she read a prayer. I was really taken aback. I was trying to keep an open mind. I thought, maybe she’ll say, ‘let’s have a moment of silence, give thanks in any way you feel comfortable,’ in which case I wouldn’t have a terrible objection, because then you could sit there and think about the farmers who made the food. But this was a thank you for the volunteers, which bothered me because it was a reminder for everybody in the room to be thankful that you are getting this food.

“Our former staff here were unionized employees and a lot of them lived in the building. This was a job. We were equals. I was not being saved in that situation.

“I wasn’t having to be grateful that you are taking time out of your day to come here for poor pathetic me and my poor pathetic life.

“And she ended the prayer ‘in Jesus’s name,’ in case there was any doubt this was Christian. It was pretty heavy-handed.”

More Than a Roof executive director Lorne Epp said in a phone interview that the organization is “on a learning curve with some residents” when it comes to the purchase of Sunset Towers.

“This is still a very new situation for us,” said Mr. Epp.

“Our motivation for helping people who are disadvantaged is our faith,” he said. “We try to do a holistic approach, and certainly spiritual wellness, regardless of somebody’s faith tradition, is a part that’s recognized as a holistic approach to health and well-being.

“This is a building of primarily seniors and one of the biggest concerns that the whole tenant population was expressing to us was drug-related activities. And people who were probably not supposed to be in the building but were in the building and were acting as predators, I guess. That was the foremost concern for the building and so we moved fairly quickly to address security issues.”

He says the “dry-building” rule is only for common areas.

“We also recognize that there are numerous people who are in active recovery and trying to beat addictions. For them even the smell of marijuana smoke might be a trigger. We ask people to be wise with their marijuana use.”

Mr. Epp says all residents have a choice as to whether they would like to participate in mealtime prayer. However, he says people are subjected to prayer at many public events.

“Our Charter of Rights acknowledges that we are a nation under God and the most common form of recognizing that is through public prayer.

“We do try to foster a culture of gratitude.”

MTR has held orientation sessions with residents, and Mr. Epp says he is open to any concerns. He said he has not received complaints. The non-profit has a five-strategy approach that goes beyond housing, he explains. Those strategies include physical, spiritual, emotional, mental and financial health. Another strategy is to “rebuild hope in the human spirit.”

Ms. Peters says she’s never seen a needle in the building and that she’s put up with far more problematic tenants when she lived in market rental buildings.

“You don’t create community by turning a building into a facility. I just want the right to live my life in my community.”

She wishes the government had consulted the tenants about what kind of community they wanted to live in, before the sale. And she says there are residents, particularly older people, who prefer the new management.

Spencer Chandra Herbert, the NDP MLA for the West End, says he has friends in the building who aren’t bothered by their Christian landlords, but he knows other tenants who don’t like it.

“They are finding that one religion exclusively is being promoted. I get why it bugs them. I wouldn’t want to find all of a sudden I was living in a place that was promoting one religion. Of course that would bug me.

“I’m just disappointed the B.C. government didn’t consider the residents when making a change. You’d think a non-profit affordable housing building should be secular.”

For Ms. Peters, it’s about dignity and respect for people who are vulnerable. She doesn’t want to be made to feel that because she’s low income, she’s in need of moral guidance.

“The issue is one of respecting the human rights and dignity of people living in this building, to freely decide what they are grateful for and how, when and where they express that gratitude – and who they share that with,” she says.

“I need housing, not saving.”

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