Ross House

When Charles Haynes lost his son Ross to a heroin overdose in 2000, he was gripped by an irrepressible rage. He wanted to lash out—at the people who sold Ross the drugs, at those he suspected of driving Ross to seek solace in smack, at the addiction counsellors who tried but were unable to help the young man get clean, and at himself for having failed a boy who did not live to see his 20th birthday.

Instead, Haynes, a West Vancouver architect, harnessed his torment and grief and poured it into a 100-year-old, wood-sided Japanese rooming house that he bought in 2006 and has since been slowly renovating, one room and one hallway at a time. It’s called Ross House and with the junkies, bottle collectors, abused ex-cons, mumbling schizophrenics, and other denizens of the Downtown Eastside populating the streets outside, the dishevelled building might seem like just another monument to sadness, suffering, and shattered dreams. In reality, it’s the opposite. For Haynes, the anonymous-looking structure is both a form of catharsis and a tribute. Though Ross never really belonged to that underclass of Downtown Eastside addicts—he died with a needle at his bedside in their comfortable British Properties home—Haynes decided the only way to come to terms with his grief was to channel it into a project that might do something good for people on the margins of society. And for many on the Downtown Eastside, clean, safe, and comfortable shelter is about as good as it gets.

“I’m doing this for the love of my son and the creation of a memorial, and for me it’s a physical release of energy,” says Haynes, a tall man with wavy silver hair, a small scar above his lip, and square-framed glasses.

I meet him one day at the three-storey, 24-room building near Alexander and Main. The siding is faded, and an austere metal fence enshrouds the outside. Inside it is clean and quiet. The renovated rooms are 100 square feet at most, each equipped with fridge, microwave, and Internet. They rent for less than $400 per month. A collage by Vancouver artist Paul Wong is set into the wall near the main entrance and serves as a memorial to Ross. It’s a photo of a smiling young man mounted on a Plexiglas light board, surrounded by random memorabilia and reflections, among them a Cypress Bowl ski pass, a flirtatious note (“Hey Cutie, Love Mis-D XO”), and a succinct, anonymous eulogy penned by an acquaintance that says “Respectful, funny, kind, loyal.”

“For a long time I couldn’t even look at this,” Haynes says, as we stand before the illuminated photo of a handsome, dark-haired young man.

More than a decade after Ross’s death, the grieving process for Haynes is still under way. His late son, young, charming, vital, and seemingly full of potential, would have had little in common with the average Ross House tenant, but Haynes sees a part of Ross—the frail and tragically human part—in everyone who walks through his door. In some ways Haynes is more benevolent father figure than landlord to the residents, albeit a father figure with some firm rules.

And as far as Haynes knows, his house rules—no booze, no drugs, no parties—are usually respected. Tenants are cordial with each other but generally mind their own business. Still, life at Ross House is far from seamless. He says he’s been threatened with a knife and has had tools stolen more than once. Occasionally one of his more fragile tenants becomes unglued.

J.P. Garen, originally from Owen Sound, Ontario, is a 30-year-old crystal-meth user suffering from depression and paranoia. Soft-spoken, he lives on the second floor. One day he phoned the police, complaining hysterically of a man on the building’s roof with a gun who wanted to kill him. Police responded with assault rifles; the assailant turned out to be fictional. It nearly got him evicted, but Haynes gave him a second chance.

“Charles is fair but firm. This is a place where I can rest my head, but one day I’d like to go overseas. Maybe London, Australia, or Europe,” Garen says, with a hint of the hopeless dreamer.

Peter Naznan rooms a few doors down from Garen and has no plans to leave. Hungarian-born, he has lived in the rooming house for 11 years and in Canada for decades more. In the tidy room he shares with his cat, an English dictionary lies open on the kitchen table. Built like a wrestler, Naznan is missing most of his top teeth, giving him a menacing appearance. But when he opens his mouth, speaking rudimentary English, the menace disappears.

“I happy here,” he says. “I take garbage out, change toilet paper, and clean washrooms.”

On the third floor, 49-year-old Connie Holbeck feels like she has found a home. A waitress for 30 years, she spent half her career at Denny’s on Burrard until it shut. She neither drinks nor does drugs, but a bum knee made holding down a job difficult. Economic circumstances eventually forced her into low-rent SROs. Before moving to Ross House, she roomed at the Grand Union Hotel for four months, a place she calls a “zoo” full of addicts and dealers. In comparison Ross House is a sanctuary.

Heading back downstairs, we find Bob Greenwood hunkered down over a computer keyboard in a communal nook, surrounded by pages of notes handwritten in a minute, immaculate script. Greenwood has long stringy grey hair and the pale complexion of nocturnal creatures. He has lived at Ross House for five years and spends hours every day researching mineral-exploration companies online and studying arcane economic theory with an almost obsessive genius. As an act of faith, Haynes gave him access to $5,000 to seed his stock portfolio, with the handshake understanding that they split the profits. No profits to report today.

“We got hammered in the markets yesterday, Charles,” Greenwood says without removing his gaze from the screen. Haynes looks at me and smiles. There’s no doubt, it is an unusual family of tenants here at Ross House—some, like the tragically flawed Garen, will come and go; others, like Holbeck, will likely stay put because it’s the safest, cleanest home they’ll find in the Downtown Eastside.

As for Haynes, with each century-old banister sanded and refinished, each nail pounded, each drywall screw driven, he gets one step closer to personal healing and extracting some good from Ross’s death. “What am I doing here?” he asks rhetorically, as if it’s a question he’s answered many times. “Ross House is a karma goldmine. I’m mining karma.” VM