After Life on the Street, a Christmas Tree Meant Home

·4 min read

When the photo above was taken in 2017, Jack Gates had been living in Vancouver’s Regent Hotel for three years. For much of that time, Gates had been fighting his landlords, the Sahota family, in court or at B.C.’s Residential Tenancy Branch over the terrible living conditions in the single-room occupancy hotel.

Photographer Jennifer Gauthier and I had come to the Regent to talk to Gates about the city’s failure to make it a safe building to live in. Gates had taken us on a tour of the building, showing us a loose fire escape and talking about his fear of what would happen if there was a fire. We’d seen a rat scampering down the hallway, doors boarded up with plywood and overflowing garbage bins in the corridors.

It was just a few weeks before Christmas, and even though his room was tiny — a typical 100-square-foot SRO room — Gates had put up a full-sized Christmas tree, decorated with candy canes and tinsel. I asked Jen to try to get a photo of him with his tree.

I’ve been thinking about that photo a lot lately. Gates and everyone else who lived in the Regent moved out in 2018, when the city declared the building unsafe to occupy. City councillors voted to start a process to expropriate the Regent and another hotel owned by the Sahotas, the Balmoral, because they had been so badly neglected.

The city finally took ownership of the Downtown Eastside buildings this fall, and plans to redevelop them into housing affordable to people on disability and social assistance payments.

Gates says he put up the tree to make his room at the Regent feel like home. He recalled how when he first arrived at the hotel his room was filled with mattresses that were visibly crawling with bedbugs. He had to clean out the room himself, with the help of Pine-Sol, a mop and a broom bought at the dollar store.

“When I moved into the Regent, I didn’t care — I was going to make it a home,” Gates said.

Gates’s journey to the Regent started with being evicted from an apartment at Fraser and Broadway while he was in hospital. He ended up living on the street, sleeping in a tent behind the Tim Hortons at Broadway and Main. One night, he said, some police officers stopped him as he was foraging for something to sell in the alley, drove him to the Downtown Eastside and left him there.

When Gates first moved into the Regent, he didn’t have a bed — for about a month, he slept on the floor with his head cushioned on his jacket. Often his room was freezing, because there was no heat or hot water.

By 2017, when Gates was speaking to reporters and advocating for himself and other tenants, his room was carefully organized, with food and other items stored in clear plastic bins and the bed neatly made — although the mice still chewed holes in the foam mattress, which he brought to City Hall at one point to show to city council.

His Christmas tree that year, he remembers, came from a lot at 12th Avenue and Main Street. Wendy Pedersen, a tenant organizer who worked with residents of the Regent and Balmoral, picked it up in her car and drove it back to the Downtown Eastside.

“When I was younger, I never really had a tree,” he said. “I was free from drugs and alcohol and I wanted to have a Christmas I would remember.”

Gates remembers he was the last one to move out of the Regent, and he wanted to make sure the housing other tenants had been offered was better than what they’d all experienced in the Sahotas’ SROs.

“I didn’t want to see anyone live like they were living in the Regent,” he said.

Gates says he was excited by the news of the city taking ownership of the hotels because of what it means for people who need housing. Too many people in the city are homeless, he said, living on the street in the cold and rain.

“I know now they’re going to build some housing,” he said. “I lived on the street for a couple of months and I got double pneumonia. No matter if someone says they don’t mind being out there, there are too many things that can happen.”

Gates now lives in a social housing building in Strathcona, just a few blocks from where he used to live. He got his tree up on Monday, and his bachelor apartment is filled with gifts he plans to hand out in Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.

“Every place I’ve had since I sobered up, I made it home,” Gates said. “No matter the condition it’s in — so I can welcome people in.”

Jen St. Denis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee