Is the plight of Vancouver’s homeless a lost cause? One woman says no.

Langley, B.C.—In an area established as the lowest per capita income in all of Canada, and an area synonymous with mental illness, aids, crime and violence, Vancouver’s Eastside offers little hope to those without an address.

Recently a group of squatters camping outside Victory Square war memorial park brought the lack of social housing and B.C. welfare time limits to the media’s attention. However it was the Woodward’s squat that initially brought the shortage to the public eye. The previous NDP government had promised to build 400 units of affordable housing in the landmark building, but the promise had not been kept.

The three month Woodwards squat upheaval ended when Claudia and Nasser Launhardt, suggested the City house the squatters in their newly purchased hotel, the Dominion, a stylish Victorian building in the heart of historical Gastown. The Launhardts offered to provide housing until May when the squatters could move into the Stanley, a hotel under renovation by the City.

The odd solution was certainly a helpful one, but it has left outsiders wondering, why did the Launhardts take the squatters in and has it truly been helpful?

“Many people told me we were crazy to take the squatters in,” Claudia says. “They’ll destroy your hotel,’ they warned. But they were wrong. The squatters are in charge of cleaning up rooms and hallways and they’re doing a great job. Some of them have even decorated their walls and doors. They’ve made a home for themselves.”

As a professor of anthropology at Trinity Western University, Claudia Launhardt continually looks beyond risk to see opportunities awaiting. For her and her students, the Downtown Eastside is a rich training field for study as well as an opportunity to give back to society.

“Anthropology is not a theoretical science,” says Claudia in her German accent. “You have to go out into the field. That’s why I bring my students here to do hands-on projects. Many of them want to go into global missions work when they graduate. Spending a week in the Downtown Eastside is good preparation for working in a developing world.”

Her students appreciate her hands-on approach and efforts to promote engagement with the world. “Claudia’s case studies and field trips help us develop genuine interest in other cultures, in other people and their stories,” says TWU alumnus Desmond Wong.

Perhaps Claudia’s optimism and hope for the weak and poor stem from her own childhood. As Germans living in Ethiopia, Claudia and her family endured many years of drought and famine. After high school she took a trip to Paraguay to get a firsthand taste of helping developing countries.

Today Claudia continues to study cultures and attend to their needs. Right now, it’s the needs of Vancouver’s squatters. She recently opened the Dominion to the Portland Society, an agency that offers counseling for the mentally ill. “They staff the lobby desk and set up appointments,” Claudia says. “It’s a welcome service amongst the residents.”

And Claudia continues to prove that she’s more than willing to take risks to help others. “One woman was a heroin and crack addict until we gave her a job cleaning the hotel,” she says. “Now she’s employed and she’s paying her bills and she has regained her self-respect. She has even built up her relationship with her 18-year-old daughter.”

In addition to the Dominion, the Launhardt’s own a second Eastside hotel, the Ivanhoe, and lease a third, the C & N Backpacker’s Hostel.

The couple first began helping those on the Eastside when they purchased the Ivanhoe. Across the street from a well-known hang-out for dug dealers and pimps, the Ivanhoe area also has a terrible reputation for organized crime. “Most of the people who live in this neighbourhood are simply the working poor,” says Claudia. “They’re victimized by criminals and drug dealers. They don’t like them anymore than we do.”

When the Launhardts bought the 125-room hotel, it received up to 600 police visits a month. They worked hard to redeem it from its infamous reputation as the “devil’s playground.” They renovated extensively, replacing the roof, the elevator, and the heater. With the help of TWU students, they also painted and re-carpeted to make the place more appealing for residents. “We want people to feel at home here and take pride in where they live,” Claudia says.

Soon, the new owners found residents were as eager as they were to eliminate crack dealers and violent criminals from the hotel roster. “People came to us and said, “Don’t rent a room to this guy, he’s dealing drugs,’” Claudia says. Slowly, with prayer and prudent management, the hotel was purged of its undesirable tenants.

According to Jill Davidson, senior housing planner for the city of Vancouver, providing safe housing is crucial to revitalizing the city’s skid row. “For many years, residents of the Downtown Eastside have had a significant problem in finding safe, affordable housing,” says the veteran planner. “Studies done by the provincial government and the city show that housing is really critical, because it affects health, family, economic opportunities and the general stability of the community. So we see it as key to allowing people to live more successful lives.”

The city is currently working with community groups and senior levels of government, in the hope of building more affordable housing to replace unsafe hotels and run-down apartments. “Meanwhile,” says Davidson, “we encourage people in the private sector to maintain their buildings and to work with the social agencies in the area so their tenants can live stable lives.”

Claudia has a BA in Arabic language and literature from the University of Damascus in Syria, and an MA in anthropology from Frankfurt University. She is currently completing her PhD thesis about a Muslim kingdom near Jima in southwest Ethiopia. She has ties with the kingdom’s current ruler and included his father’s Arabic diary in her thesis. Claudia also teaches a course on Islamic Culture at TWU to help students understand Islam in the wake of 9/11.

Trinity Western University, located in Langley, B.C., is a not-for-profit Christian liberal arts university enrolling over 3,200 students this year. With a broad based, liberal arts and sciences curriculum, the University offers undergraduate degrees in 38 major areas of study ranging from business, education and computer science to biology and nursing, and 12 other graduate degrees including counseling psychology, theology and administrative leadership.

Last Updated: 2015-07-13
Author: Keela Keeping