Memorial sheds light on lives of Pandora St. fire victims

A memorial service for the three men who died in an East Van house fire was held Saturday at the Longhouse Council Native Ministry.

Garland McKay, Dwayne Rasmussen and Steven Yellowquill died on Dec 22 when the porch they were living in at 2862 Pandora St. caught fire.

On Saturday, the Longhouse was filled to capacity with friends and family. The service began with a song led by Traditional Mothers. Morris then asked the mourners to stand up and share memories of the three men. For friends and family, it was a day to honour the men and their strengths. A picture emerged of the men as compassionate, respectful, and selfless.

A broad picture of the men’s journey and challenges also emerged. There were many preventable factors creating the conditions for the tragedy.

The three men came from First Nations across the country (Rasmussen from Mount Currie, McKay from Kelowna, Yellowquill from Manitoba) to Vancouver looking for opportunity, but were unable to access appropriate non-market housing. As a result, the only housing that was accessible to them was the unsafe and inadequate “rooming-house” at 2862 Pandora St.

Dave Diewert of Streams of Justice, a long-time friend of Rasmussen who spoke at a press conference preceding the memorial, told The Mainlander:

But here is the real problem, in my view. The nature of these guys’ lives was such that finding rental accommodation was extremely difficult, if left to the market to provide. No one would rent to them an adequate, safe place for what they could pay – except someone who didn’t care about their property or the lives of the people residing there, but who wanted to profit off of their property as easily as possible.

Diewert explained that the unsafe rooming-house was the only place they could find housing:

On the other hand, the place was accessible to the folks who lived there. They didn’t need reference letters. They didn’t need to compete with others to rent there. They didn’t have to look a certain way or lie about being on welfare or pretend they weren’t alcoholics (people can check Alcohol rehab if they are alcoholics)  or whatever else is necessary to find housing in the Vancouver real estate market.

This, said Diewert, put the men in a trap:

In this sense, [2862 Pandora] was accessible, though the trade-off was inadequate, unsafe housing. I don’t think this is an acceptable trade-off, and both the city and the province share some responsibility to provide safe, secure, adequate and accessible housing for people whose lives entail challenging patterns of addiction.

In the absence of real government action to fill the non-market housing gap, demolishing the rooming-house would simply have rendered the men homeless.

Rider Cooey of the City-Wide Housing Coaltion, who also spoke at the Longhouse press-conference, noted that the men had to pay more for their rooms than they were worth. The two Rasmussen brothers paid $300 & $350 to share one bedroom and Steven Yellowquill paid $465 for a tiny bedroom at 2862 Pandora St., even though the house was in unacceptable disrepair (see these City documents).

This is an example of a larger pattern emerging throughout the City. On the one hand there is not enough non-market housing for those who need it, and on the other hand these same people are often excluded from the “regular” housing market. As a result, a parallel exploitative housing market grows, where so-called “slumlords” charge exorbitant prices for unsafe accommodations. Indeed, the rental rates of SROs in the Downtown Eastside are rising well above welfare rates.

Coroner’s Inquest

Saturday, Cooey, Diewert and pastor Morris called for a Coroner’s Inquest into the deaths. They emphasized that that an Inquest should be broad in scope with a strong mandate.

Diewert said he hopes that “an inquest would bring to the surface wider causes of death than simply faulty wiring in an extension cord…I hope that such an inquiry would bring into view the social, economic and political dimensions of this tragedy, with strong recommendations to address them.”

Cooey emphasized that the Provincial government (not the City) shoud call the Inquest, to ensure that it can address root causes and that recommendations are taken seriously.

“Acting Chief Coroner Norm Leibel should set a date for a Coroner’s Inquest, which hears public testimony by witnesses. A one-man ‘investigation and report’ by duty-Coroner Scott Fleming will not provide the transparency needed by the community,” said Cooey.

Cooey said that an Inquiry should address social assistance rates and the inadequacy of homeless shelters, as well as strengthening enforcement of health and safety by-laws at the municipal level.

“Closing non-compliant buildings should occur only as a last resort,” said Cooey. “The BC government must increase the designated Housing component of social assistance to a level that allows people to spend no more than one third of their income on housing…[and they] should acknowledge that subsidizing homeless shelters does not solve the dangerous shortage of affordable housing for poor individuals and families. This most recent tragedy shows how dangerous that shortage is.”

Photo courtesy of rcooey