By Tammy Robert, Saskatoon Express
Recently, I had the opportunity to tour Saskatoon’s Lighthouse Supported Living Centre, in the heart of our downtown on the corner of 20th Street and Second Avenue. You know the one — the place a whole bunch of people wish didn’t exist.
After my tour, walking down the cracked steps and back into the sunlight, two distinct feelings washed over me: Hope and Hopelessness.
Let’s start with Hopelessness because it’s the more logical feeling when exiting a facility filled with our community’s most vulnerable citizens. Addictions, lifetimes of abuse and exploitation, chronic homelessness, mental illness, disease and plain old-fashioned bad luck tend to plague those who call the Lighthouse home. Yes, these are often the same people bothering you for change downtown, drifting up and down Second Avenue.
The Lighthouse, formerly the Capri Hotel, is not a glamorous place. In various stages of renovation and disrepair, projects move slowly, teasing staff and clients alike with their potential as grant funds trickle in at a glacier’s pace. The men and women’s emergency overnight shelters, housed in what appears to be the hotel pool’s locker rooms, are lined with neatly made beds. General manager Jordon Cooper, a man who has devoted his life to the lives of others, shares the story of one woman using the sparse shelter for herself and her two daughters — it’s the only thing holding her family together.
Rental income from a full slate of tenants keeps the Lighthouse’s operating costs afloat. Everyone has a roof over their head, which is the main priority, but the old hotel hallways are dank, yellowed and depressing. Layers of rotten carpet shift spongy under your feet, while the occasional tenant slips ghostlike out of their tiny apartment, heading downstairs for a smoke and a reprieve from their four walls.
The lobby is a hub of organized chaos. The old Capri bar sits adjacent to the counter, still authentic with its original wood panelling and retro stippled ceiling. A few couches scatter the room, where clients sleeping curled around backpacks with their backs to the world. A female tenant sits on an old chair next to the doors, eagerly watching the vending machine being replenished. She complains when she hears there won’t be sandwiches for lunch, but brightens at the prospect of lasagna for supper. A stocky man, with wild hair and a face both blank and furious, asks the busy receptionist for a glass of water so he can take his pill. Clients drift in and out of stairwells and the rather precarious looking elevator, busy going nowhere.
It was a tiny snapshot of what’s going on in that building across from the theatre. Now let’s get to the Hope, shall we?
Hope springs at the Lighthouse, driven by a small but tight team of people, including Jordon and communications director DeeAnn Mercier, who guided me through the tour. At any given moment, you’ll find DeeAnn, Jordon and the team switching hats seamlessly from counsellor, educator, to punching bag, advocate, landlord, to first responder, to savior. They make hundreds of decisions per day. Decisions that radically impact the lives of their clients, yet they manage to radiate stoicism and compassion.
Pockets of newness, such as the recently opened floor for Saskatoon Health Region patients suffering from mental illness, reflect the promise of Hope for the entire facility. The brand new residential tower stands bright and tall next to the grimy exterior of the old hotel. Above all, there are plans — so many plans — for programming and facilities to make the lives of Lighthouse residents better. From indoor gardens to detox centres, DeeAnn and Jordon refuse to see any space as anything other than a place for great things to come.
An occasional story floats to the surface of a resident who overcame impossible odds. It’s these stories that help keep Lighthouse staff going forward — and must keep the Lighthouse doing the same.