It’s a tale of two houses in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
In one, a beautiful heritage building called Imouto House, live 18 young women between the ages of 16 and 24 facing tremendous challenges including homelessness, violence, substance abuse, pregnancy, poverty, racism and poor health.
Next door, in a modern development made with recycled shipping containers, live twelve adult women with histories on the Downtown Eastside, half of whom are over the age of 55. Many once found themselves with lifestyles similar to their young neighbours, but are now in a better place.
In the short time the women have been neighbours, friendships have flourished.
“The relationships are as varied as the women are,” says Janice Abbott, CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society, the not-for profit organization that provides supportive housing for women and owns both buildings.
The friendships are no accident. When Atira purchased Imouto House, Abbott says they realized the in-fill lot next door lent itself perfectly to a container housing development, a project they’d wanted to tackle for a while. BC Hydro donated two shipping containers, and Atira purchased 10 more, using them as substructures in the new developments and subsequently saving money on building costs.
Central City Foundation donors provided funding for the container housing, because it is an innovative project that helps tackle the formidable challenges faced by both the young woman and the mentors, challenges that include homelessness, poverty and hunger.
With the young women next door at Imouto House in need of support, the mentorship program was a natural next step.
“The idea was that we would create this intergenerational mix of women who would partner with each other and be able to learn from and work with each other, hopefully to the advantage of both groups of women,” Abbott says.
Central City Foundation donors also gave Atira a grant for furniture and equipment at Imouto House. It was used to purchase bedroom furniture as well as the kitchen furniture and appliances that help make the Intergenerational Mentorship Program possible.
“A lot of great discussions happen in our kitchen, and this is where the mentors meet and get to know the young women,” says Eliza McCullough, program manager at Imouto House. “Many events and memories unfold around the Imouto kitchen table.”
The modern kitchen is often decorated with freshly cut flowers. The mentors and mentees cook together here on Friday evenings. On Sundays, they meet for brunch. It’s these casual gatherings that are helping these woman become better neighbours, and helping build hope, just as Central City Foundation has strived to do for decades.
Atira’s mentorship program also includes regular art workshops, and, once a month, a traditional sharing circle and smudge led by a counsellor.
Rochelle Poirier moved into the container housing in September, finding herself in a calm, supportive environment that made it easier to leave the chaotic lifestyle of the streets and back alleys behind her. Her new home has given her an opportunity to focus on her own wellness and making jewellery, which she has been able to sell with help from Atira.
She’s found herself thriving with the support from the staff next door, and in her own role as a mentor.
When Poirier was younger, and especially when she got pregnant at 17, she remembers feeling afraid of judgment and uncertain who to trust.
“I can relate because I’ve pretty much walked in their shoes,” says Poirier. “There’s things that happen that you’re quite terrified to talk about.”
Because the young women live next door, Poirier says it’s easy for friendships to happen organically, in everyday moments.
“I think it’s important for the young women to know that life still comes at you and sometimes it’s easy to resort back to old ways,” she says. “But you can pick yourself and with the help of the staff that work here and with other women you learn to trust…they can help you out of those situations.