New Dodson Hotel (25 E Hastings
Peter Ladner, Business In Vancouver, August, 2004
With the doubling of the homeless population in the Lower Mainland this year, there's a widespread angst about how to stop the problem at its source, as well as how to stem the related anti-social behaviour spilling out into the streets. Business people find themselves in the unique position of not just being hit in the pocketbook by street disorder, but also in having a pocketbook that could help provide resources for people without places to live.
I've written here before about developer and former Vancouver Hotel Association president Hart Molthagen's purchase of two seedy rooming houses on Main Street just north of Hastings. Still catering to hard-to-house tenants, he transformed them into the Jubilee Rooms, a haven of safe, clean, affordable housing with a caring and supportive staff, partnering with the Lookout Emergency Aid Society. The cleanup and renovation of the 77-room complex was done entirely with his own money, projecting just enough profit to keep his banker happy.
Now his example has been picked up by David Ash, the 44-year-old Langley-based president, founder and owner or Payroll Loans Ltd., a North American leader in lending money to people who can't get credit through conventional means. No longer running Payroll Loans day to day, he oversees real estate investments and some mortgage lending as he gets deeper into what might be called benevolent entrepreneurism. Also an active Christian, Ash met Molthagen and his partner Gordon Wiebe, a former Langley evangelical pastor and missionary, and was impressed enough to join them as a business partner in the recent purchase of the New Dodson Hotel at 25 West Hastings.
“The day we bought it, things changed,” says Ash. “We cut off the prostitutes doing tricks in the rooms, we stopped the open sales of drugs; we took the gambling machines out of the pub even though it was a great source of revenue, and we started free breakfasts for our tenants to create a sense of community.”
Having already been a major financial supporter of Triage Emergency Services & Care Society's Princess Rooms at 215 Princess Ave., Ash was similarly moved to get into the New Dodson deal by his painful family history. His mother died alone, overcome with mental illness, in a Halifax rooming house in 1999. Her body was discovered by a landlord looking for overdue rent, three days after she died.
“She was a typical mum until I was 12,” he recalls, “and she stayed with the family until I was in my early 20s. Then she became impossible to live with, migrated to the streets, drifting in and out of shelters and psychiatric wards across Canada. It was extremely painful for the family.”
Visiting his mother in these places has given him a heart for these types of causes, he says. (Since the New Dodson deal closed in June, he has bought a 24-unit room house at 512 East Cordova, to be run by Triage for hard-to-house mentally-ill women, many of them drug-addicted.)
In a tribute to his mother on the Triage website, Ash tells the story of the last time any of her three sons saw her alive:
The last time I saw my mother was May of 1997. . . . I was in Edmonton looking for office space for my company. As I drove through a downtown intersection on the corner I saw a woman who looked a lot like my mother, I looked again and sure enough it was my mother. You can imagine my surprise as I had no idea she was in Edmonton at the time. I quickly pulled over, parked and then followed her into a restaurant. When I approached her she was very defensive and cool . . . I ended up visiting with her for a few hours, left her with some money and a promise from her to keep in touch. That was the last time I saw or heard from mum.
I asked Ash what other business people could do who feel moved to help but don't know where they can be most effective.
“Everyone wants to help feed people, but food is a non-issue in the Downtown Eastside. The biggest need is getting some healthy people in there, people who care, who can demonstrate compassion and love… You've got to get off the couch, spend some time to find organizations to support that do good work, just like any business investment. Some deals are real and some are not.”
Ash's business goal at the New Dodson is to preserve his capital investment in the long-term, hopefully breaking even on operations “in a year or two”, with any profits going back into the business.
“We won't throw people out for the same reasons as other landlords. And we're not hitting them over the head with the Bible. The staff we hire aren't Christian. They're typically recovering addicts, downtown eastside residents who want to help broken-down people grow healthier and get stabilized.”
Business experience and resources, combined with unusual levels of compassion, can be powerful forces for helping people out of the trough of homelessness.
Hastings Street 1948. Trolly bus in front of Dodson Hotel.
Painting by Brian Croft. www.briancroft.com