New lives being made in old building

Social housing success story on Seymour Street

They were almost given up on, seen as not worthwhile saving.

Worn out. Rundown. Broken.

But the 110-year-old apartments above the stores at Third Avenue and Seymour Street, and the people in them, are together, thriving.

It's a double redemption.

More than four years ago, a property management company bought the building for the parking spaces for its commercial clients.

The Kelson Group vice-president Jason Fawcett said the parking in back of the building was the main draw.

In fact, at one point, the company was going to shut off the top floor and leave the bottom space to the Jade Garden restaurant, Oops CafÉ and Electrictree Yarns.

"We determined the downstairs commercial was viable," he said Thursday.

The upstairs was a mess of old, dilapidated boardinghouse rooms, with rickety floors, cracked plaster walls and filthy bathrooms.

Kelson previously had a short but successful partnership with ASK Wellness providing low-income housing for some of its clients struggling to overcome addictions or mental health problems.

So ASK and its executive director Bob Hughes agreed to give the downtown building a try.

Renovations were required, and Kelson took on most of the costs to replace the roof, fix plumbing, upgrade washrooms and repair so much that had been neglected for so long.

"There's no government money here," Hughes said. "It wouldn't happen without the individuals involved."

Tenants began moving into the 11 suites, some of them with tiny kitchens and some with shared bathrooms, 3½ years ago.

Even during that time, work had to be done.

Building manager Chris Burton has gone through his own metamorphosis at the apartments. More than 20 years ago, he left the British Royal Navy and a marriage that fell apart. He came to Canada to escape that pain, only to soak it in drugs and alcohol.

Then he got to Kamloops. Four and a half years ago, he was one of the first graduates of the Addiction and Supportive Housing (ASH) program.

He was hired to oversee the building and its tenants.

The rear balcony railing fell off. Burton rebuilt it and every summer covers it with baskets of flowers.

The rooms had more steel beds in them than he had ever seen. He found nicer ones for the tenants.

"Having started underneath the bridge myself, I know where things are," he said.

"We have an open door policy, 1 a.m., 3 a.m. . . ." he said.

One severely trashed room that was off to the side has been repainted, the floor refinished and it's now a common room with Burton's old big-screen TV and a stack of videos and DVDs.

"The guys are showing pride," he said of the tenants and their space, shared and personal.

ASK housing co-ordinator Wendy Simms said the building is full and rent is charged based on income. Tenants include a young couple going through the ASH program, a man who does renal dialysis daily in his suite, two alcoholics, and others with mental health or physical issues.

"I love it here. It's a nice, quiet building. Everyone gets along," said Glenn Savoie.

He moved in in February. He, too, has been through the ASH program and is still in a daily addictions recovery program. He started taking drugs at 13 and, at 41, has been clean for almost a year.

Addiction isn't his only challenge; he has anxiety, depression and schizophrenia. He's stabilized on his medication and has discovered it works better when it's not muddled by alcohol or drugs.

He proudly invited the media into his tidy livingroom where he has a mountain bike parked that a friend is helping build.

It's a lot nicer than some of the other places he's lived over the years; it's safe and it's clean.

"I finally feel like I have a chance to do something for myself in the future."

His future includes plans to get his Grade 12 equivalency, and then perhaps becoming a motorcycle mechanic.

"I feel home for once, and clean and sober and I can think clearly," said Savoie.

The deal with Kelson and ASK Wellness was year by year as the apartments, and the people in them, got established.

Now there's a longer commitment. So it seemed fitting to show off the suites on Thursday, letting the community know they were there, letting the tenants show off their homes - if they so chose - and naming a new permanent place where people can seek shelter.

The top floor is now known as the Tina Baptiste Suites, after a woman who worked for years to help down and out aboriginal people get a roof over their heads.

Hughes said Baptiste would call him looking for help for someone and she would never take no for an answer.

Baptiste was a friend to Henry Leland, who died in the cold in Kamloops and who is the namesake of another ASK Wellness building downtown.

Baptiste also died - three years ago, at age 41. But like her friend, she has a place named after her where people can go.

Refurbished. Repaired. Redeemed.

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