Sorella House

By Meredith Macdonald

Sorella Housing for Women opened its secure, locked doors for tenants, most sent by referral, in the spring of 2011. I moved into Sorella in June of 2011 and I lived there for seven years. At the time, the women who were eligible to live in Sorella were described in newspaper articles and news programs as unhousable. Sorella was a newer way to house the women who were difficult to house anywhere else in the city. It was modern, expensive, a green building, and it was designed for each person to have an apartment with a bathroom, and with staff available twenty-four hours a day. 

When it first opened, I was sitting outside the building when I noticed a news crew taking pictures. I stood up and moved. I didn’t want to be included in a picture. I understood the implications of finding myself a resident in Sorella. Because the news was covering Sorella’s opening, men often stood by the front door waiting to talk to the women as they went inside. They stopped me to ask questions about the building. One man asked me, “Is this the new prostitutes’ building?” Less unkind men asked me, “Is this the women’s homeless shelter?”

Sorella opened in June. In July, a press conference with a ribbon cutting was held on the second floor. The Vancouver mayor, Gregor Robertson, and Janice Abbott, the CEO of Atira, a non-profit society, were at Sorella’s opening ceremony. Atira’s mission statement says that it is committed to ending violence against women. Atira managed Sorella. It hired all the staff, and managed other women’s housing projects in the DTES. 

The building is on the corner of Abbott St and Pender St, at the entrance of Vancouver’s Chinatown neighborhood, half a block from the Dr. Sun Yat Sen gardens, and two blocks away from Gastown. If I longed to live in an area surrounded by high-priced real estate, then this was it. It is only two blocks from East Hastings street but in the decade prior to 2011, the area’s value exploded until it became a coveted location. Sorella was surrounded by expensive rentals and condos, and affluent people lived in the area. The provincial government worked with the federal government and obtained the land Sorella was built on, and they both contributed millions of dollars for the building. Sorella was intended as a haven for women, and it was staffed with women. 

The building might have acquired its extensive funding and its designation because of the attention given to the missing and murdered women from the DTES, as well as the negative attention given to the disastrous police investigation to find the person responsible. The missing and murdered women, all one-time residents from the Downtown Eastside, remained a painful memory for the people connected to their lives. Perhaps Sorella was offered as an olive branch, or an outstretched hand, for the living women who experienced brutality from predators. 

Sorella was designed as a high-security building. Dome cameras were mounted on the ceilings throughout the building. The cameras recorded in every direction in the hallways, in the lobby and the community rooms. The staff watched the cameras on the computer in their office. Every door in the building was affixed with automatic locks. All the fire exit doors and stairway doors were connected to alarms that howled if a door was surreptitiously propped open. Cameras were inside the elevators and the residents could only use their fob to take an elevator to their own floor. A person who came into the building with a tenant, but left the tenant’s apartment, couldn’t access the locked stairwells or the locked elevators to go to a different floor, and they remained in view of the cameras if they wandered around in the hallway. It was difficult for the tenants to visit their friends who lived in the building on another floor.

The tenants could access the staff, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and the staff could enter their private room at any time, both when unwarranted, and when desperately needed.

The women in Sorella lived as if an omnipresent threat existed. If there were threats, it was because they were women, and because they were poor women. When they were harmed in the past no one came rushing to their aid. Justice was neither offered, nor afforded even when it was sought out. 

Behind Sorella’s heavy entrance doors was a lobby where donated couches seemed out of place in the expensive neighborhood. But Sorella was a social housing building and although it was brand new in 2011, it was institutional. The walls were painted a color that was hard to discern. They looked beige or pale green or a washed out grey. It was hard to tell under the fluorescent lights that kept the building perpetually glowing in artificial daylight. The office in the lobby housed the daytime staff, and the nighttime staff, but the manager’s office was out of sight and getting an appointment with her was more difficult.

The day I moved into the building my belongings were taken down to the basement and fumigated. The bugroom was a concrete room. Inside the room an industrial heater raised the temperature high enough to kill any bugs within thirty minutes. If a bugroom implied we carried bugs in our possessions, it was worth it to live without cockroaches or bed bugs. Once a month, a pest control company came to the building and checked each person’s room. They searched the mattress seams for signs of bed bugs. If the pest control company saw bed bugs, the staff asked the tenant to pack up their belongings into garbage bags until it was arranged for their room to be fumigated. 

Sorella had twelve two-bedroom apartments rented exclusively to mothers and their children, in the care of the Ministry of Children and Families. Living in Sorella allowed the mothers to live in a community with staff available to help. But they couldn’t live in Sorella permanently. When they were stable, they needed to find another place to live. The other tenants could live in Sorella indefinitely. 

The women in Sorella referred to their apartment as a room, because of the small size. Each person’s room was furnished with a bed, a table and two chairs, and a dresser. All the furniture was provided by the building, and it was bland and non-descript, possibly ordered from the same catalogue as hospital furniture or prison furniture.

The apartments were small, but not terrible. The individual suites included a kitchenette with a stove, a fridge and cupboards. The floor was mahogany brown linoleum and it resembled dark laminate flooring. Underneath the dark linoleum was concrete. Anything made of glass and dropped on the floor would shatter into a thousand pieces.

In the suites facing the street, large floor-to-ceiling windows allowed in the sunshine. The expansive windows were beautiful, the best feature in the room. They natural light gave the rooms an airy quality, with a view of the neighborhood below. A drawback was a safety feature that allowed only two small windows, along the bottom of the larger windows, to open outward about two inches. Without the windows opening farther, it was scorching hot inside in the summertime. The heat felt merciless because it was inescapable. 

The rooms on the back of the building also had large windows. They faced the alleyway but because the apartments were built on the third floor or higher, they viewed the second-floor rooftop garden. The garden on the extended back of the building was decorated with benches, shrubs and trees, a vegetable garden, and a playset for the children. The extension inside held a free laundry room, a community kitchen, used for cooking classes, and a computer room and televisions. The staff had WIFI in their offices, and it was available in the computer room but the residents I knew, myself included, did not have the basic skills to use the computers. When I was doing my laundry, I noticed a solitary person at a computer, but it never occurred to me to use it. The computer and TV room was usually empty.

In the lobby of Sorella, a large bulletin board was on the wall, next to the office. A tenant posted a note if she wanted to sell something, like a used TV. Researchers from the university posted offers of a stipend if tenants participated in studies. The staff posted events they planned for the building. The staff wanted to hold exercise classes on the second floor. To interest the women, they posted an invitation on the bulletin board. When I first saw the sign, the classes were offered in the daytime. The next time I noticed the sign it was changed from daytime classes to 3AM classes. I never went, but if I did go, I would have gone to the 3AM classes. 

After 2016, the staff began to post dates and times of memorial services held on the second floor in the community room. The women who lived in Sorella were overdosing and dying from fentanyl. 

The key each person was given in 2011 was a card key, like the keys used in hotels. They were easily reprogrammed if they were lost or when a tenant moved. The staff’s master card key opened every door on one floor. If a tenant wasn’t seen for three days by the staff, the staff entered the person’s room to do a safety check. It was to assure the tenant’s safety, but sometimes during a shift change the daytime staff didn’t mark down who they saw. Some days I was up and down on the elevator, and in and out of the lobby, ten times a day. The office windows were large and faced the lobby where the women sat on the couches to talk. I made a point of talking to the staff when I saw them. Still there were times I was sleeping, and I woke up because someone came into my room. I felt panicked. It was dark and I didn’t know who it was. I saw the staff during the day, so I didn’t think it was them. But it was them. 

Each room in Sorella had an intercom installed in the ceiling. The intercoms were connected to the office. When I moved into Sorella, I didn’t realize an intercom was in my room. The first time the staff used the intercom to talk to me, I was alone in my room when I heard a voice speaking. I stopped what I was doing and stayed perfectly still. I wasn’t sure if the person speaking saw me, too. When other people in the building learned there were speakers on their ceilings connected to the office, some of the women steadfastly believed the staff used the intercom to listen to them. It sounds ridiculous except the intercoms periodically turned on. A clicking sound was followed by loud, fuzzy static. I thought a button was pushed accidently, but for people who already felt like their privacy wasn’t regarded, it added to the suspicions. 

Nobody was happy if another tenant set off the fire alarm. It meant the entire building was evacuated onto the street, often in the middle of the night. Everybody waited for the firefighters to decide if it was safe to go back inside. Smoking cigarettes didn’t set off the fire alarms, but in a building where most tenants were on medication, or forgetful, or unfamiliar with cooking, the fire alarms were set off a lot.

I lived in an Atira residence, years before, on Cordova Street in the DTES. It was a house converted into women’s housing. The girl who lived in the room across the hall from my room fell asleep with a candle burning. She burned down the whole house, so I understood why there were fire extinguishers attached to the wall, on every floor, and why the staff in Sorella were cautious about fires.

One freezing predawn morning, the women were evacuated from the building. They grumbled but soon everyone was standing outside, some women wearing their pajamas. A smaller group of women huddled outside, against the front wall. I could hear them complaining about the idiot who set her room on fire. I didn’t say anything, but I nodded in agreement. I was just happy because I wasn’t an idiot.

The fire department took a long time in the building and the women were impatient. One of the night staff was outside talking to a fireman. Afterwards she walked over to me and told me the fire was in my room. She said everyone needed to wait outside until the smoke cleared. I turned my head slightly and I saw the women glaring at me. I tried to tell Carol, one of the night staff, that the fire wasn’t in my room. She disagreed. She said,

 “I know it was in your room because the location of the fire alarm shows on the computer. Anyways your room was full of smoke. You didn’t notice the smoke?”

I just heard the fire alarm. But I was sleeping. I woke up but I didn’t see a fire burning in my room. Now we were all standing outside, and I was more concerned that the other girls were mad at me. I argued,

“Carol, it wasn’t in my room!”

 But I didn’t believe that. I only hoped everyone waiting around outside heard me arguing. I followed Carol up to my room on the fourth floor.

In my room she pointed at the oven. It was covered in foam because the firemen sprayed it with fire repellant. She said,

“You filled up the drawer under the oven with papers and books and notebooks. And you left the oven on for so long the paper ignited, and it started a fire.”

  I remembered turning on the oven when I came in, earlier that night. I was freezing and my room seemed cold. I tried to warm my room up. I turned the oven up too high then I fell asleep. I told Carol I forgot the oven was on. She asked, 

“But why did you put paper in the bottom of the oven?”  I told her,

“Because I was just storing my notebooks and stuff in there. I never thought it would catch on fire.”

The first three years I lived in the building visitors weren’t allowed to come inside after 10 PM, or to stay overnight. No exceptions were made for holidays like Christmas. The women in Sorella complained bitterly because guests weren’t allowed after ten and they looked for ways to circumvent the rules. 

After living in Sorella for a short time, I noticed which staff were vigilant or easy going. It was obvious they watched the cameras in the office on the computer. If there was an incident, like a big argument between four women, the staff didn’t always know about it until the next day, so I knew they reviewed the camera footage. I stood behind them in the office to see how much of the building they watched on the computer screen. It looked like the cameras flipped back and forth to different floors and at different angles. The computer could be set to a split screen to show six pictures of different floors or it could be set to watch one floor all night. The women in Sorella needed each other’s help to occupy the staff if they wanted to bring a guest upstairs after 10PM. One tenant phoned the staff to come up to their floor. They claimed to be locked out of their room and needed the staff upstairs while another tenant tried to get past the office with their guest and onto the elevator. If the staff saw them before the elevator started moving, then the staff locked the elevator and made the guest leave.

Certain staff let the rules be broken. Whether it was carelessness or an oversight, or they wanted to give the women a break, it didn’t matter. The tenants liked those staff the most.

When a new manager started, the ‘no overnight guests’ rule was eased to allow two overnight visits per week. Aside from the two overnight visits, a tenant was only allowed one guest at a time and the guest needed to leave by 11 PM, and 1 AM on the weekends. If a tenant ignored the rule and let the guest stay past 11pm, the staff showed up at their door and held the door open until the guest left. In time, the staff started to write up the tenants instead. A guest who stayed past eleven was barred from returning. If the tenant received two more warnings, then she lost her guest privileges altogether. The rules changed as often as the staff, and new staff had their own interpretation of the rules. But the reality of the rules remained the same. Other people made the decisions instead of allowing us, the tenants, to make our own decisions. 

The logic behind the strict rules was to protect the women from further exploitation and abuse, but the rules restricted friendships and countered the belief that if a person has paid her rent, then she could have friends and family visit her – even if she was a tenant from the Downtown Eastside. 

Because of the limited guests, the women began to befriend each other and depend on each other. Marissa was one of my best friends in Sorella. She lived at one end of the fourth floor, and I lived at the other end. I knew her for years, but we become better friends because we lived on the same floor. We both lived in the DTES as teenagers. Marissa loved animals and she had a cat and a rabbit in her room, so our hallway smelled like the SPCA. She sold dope in the building, but she was generous. Even though Marissa had a quick temper, she cried easily. She helped the women who had nothing. She gave them food if they were hungry, and when they were sick, they always showed up on her doorstep. But she got tired of girls knocking on her door to ask her if they could put dope on their bill. After too many girls came to her door in one day, all looking for favours, she screamed,

“Get away from my door, don’t come back!”

As they were slinking away, she called them back and handed them the dope they asked her for but with instructions to not ask her again. They wouldn’t, until they paid some money on their debt. Then they started adding to their bill again. The women brought her their clothes to trade for dope, so she had piles of clothes, far too many to wear, in her tiny apartment. 

Just before I moved out in 2018, Marissa was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her doctor said it was unlikely she would survive because of her other health problems. I went to her room to talk to her after someone came to my room and told me. Marissa wasn’t crying. She didn’t seem too upset. I felt like I had nothing to offer her so I told her I would pray for her. She believed the doctor was wrong. 

I visited her in 2020, two and a half years after her diagnosis and she seemed okay. She had lost her hair, but it was growing back. I was happy because she looked healthy. But she said she carried the breast cancer gene and her doctor told her the cancer was returning. The doctors wanted her to have a mastectomy. She didn’t want to do it. Her boyfriend, standing behind her said, you should do it, Marissa. Marissa’s eyes turned dark when she spun around to face him. She said, “You don’t understand because you’re not a girl.”

Sorella is one of the few buildings where marginalized women live and males don’t control their lives. In the hotels, the hotel owners enforced the rules without discretion. If I was upstairs sleeping in a friend’s room and my guest fee wasn’t paid, the owner woke me up, grabbed my hair and dragged me down the hallway, onto the elevator, and out the front door. The man who worked at the front desk might tell the owner a girl refused to pay her guest fee because he pocketed for himself. The drug dealer who ‘ran’ the hotel assessed the value of the females who lived in the building, or who came inside to buy dope, and categorized them. The women he planned to have sex with he liked the best. He gave them free dope even when they weren’t having sex with him. The other female tenants and customers he let borrow dope once, but if they didn’t pay him the money back, they couldn’t ask him again. A dealer I knew for years told me the first time a girl asked him to borrow dope he always said yes. When she started out with a debt, she was indebted to him.

The special treatment some girls received caused tension and competition because the females were all in the same position: addicted, and in need of favour from the men who controlled their opportunities and the buildings where they lived. Each female wanted a little bit of extra help to make their lives more bearable. Ironically, the females sustained the drug trade, at least where I lived. The male customers bought drugs once or twice a day, but the women worked and bought drugs all night, and all day, without rest. The drugs sustained them when they felt hopeless.

A new girl moved into the ‘mother’s suite’ in Sorella with her little boy and next to Marissa’s room. She wasn’t from the DTES and she didn’t appear to be a drug user. She was an Indian girl and she looked clean and healthy. She had perfect teeth. I didn’t see scars on her hands or her arms. The first time we spoke, we were going up to the fourth floor in the elevator. 

She asked me,

“Will drug dealers give me drugs if I don’t have money?” 

I was surprised. I looked at her more carefully. I asked her,

“Do you do drugs? “

She didn’t answer me. She insisted again that she wanted to find drugs except she didn’t have any money. I was doubtful she did drugs because if she did, she wouldn’t need to ask me how to get them. If she did drugs, she’d figure it out herself.

I told her, 

  “If you’re talking about the drug dealers on Hastings Street, no, they don’t give anyone drugs because they don’t even own the drugs they sell.”

The girl listened,

“If you’re talking about drug dealers who sell inside, if you ask them for dope but you have no money they freak out and scream at you, tell you to leave. Anyways, you have your little boy.”

She ignored my comment about her little boy. She was persistent. She wanted to know if there was anything she could do to get drugs without money. I told her, no. No, there’s no way for you to get drugs.

  Except after that I couldn’t stop thinking about her or wondering what she was thinking about. Or why she wanted to find drugs.

In 1999, two policemen, Al Arsenault and Toby Hinton, started filming addicts they knew in the DTES. At that time, producers from the National Film Board of Canada were filming in the DTES and they met the policemen. Eventually, the producers collaborated with the policemen to make the documentary Through A Blue Lens. The movie followed three women and one man in their day-to-day life, addicted, in the DTES. One of the women, Nicola, lived in Sorella and she was my next-door neighbor. In the movie, Nicola was a kind, funny but mentally unstable woman, and a longtime drug addict. When she was living beside me, she was still kind and funny, but her mental health was much worse than it had been. She stayed in her room for long periods of time. Occasionally I spoke to her, but when I saw her room, it was a disaster. The room was in the worst condition I had ever seen. She was sleeping without bedding, it was filthy, and she had no food. She told me that every so often her sister’s ex-husband came by to bring her food. Nicola, at the time she lived in Sorella, may have been in her sixties, although I didn’t know her age. I thought her situation was dire. I wondered about all the locks and cameras and security measures, all the money used to build Sorella, yet no one was there to help Nicola. How could a human being be allowed to live in such extreme conditions in a building that cost millions of dollars, a green building, a building the city seemed so proud of? Eventually Nicola was removed from the building when she turned on the faucets in her suite and flooded her room and part of the fourth floor. 

On Sorrella’s website, it said one-third of the units were intended for people with mental health problems or an addiction, or both. I thought the number of women who lived in Sorella with those problems was ninety five percent or more. When someone in the DTES was an addict, it was their most obvious problem, but not their only problem. 

Sheena lived on the fourth floor, two doors down from me. She was an impressive artist. She found materials like mirrors and glass, framed posters of Marilyn Monroe, or discarded pictures that she cut up and repurposed for her own artwork. She collected hanging lights and crystals from chandeliers she found in the laneways in the West End. Her room was spotless. When my door was propped open, I saw her cleaning and scrubbing. She somehow attached a doorbell to her door. She posted new signs every day, instructions for the women who came to her door. Her instructions were specific. Knock Twice Only or Ring the Bell or I’m not Answering. Sometimes she posted Take Off Shoes. She was obsessed with the thought of someone wearing shoes into her room. But when I did walk into her room, it was like walking into an art gallery. At nighttime, her art lit up and it was displayed against a backdrop of floor to ceiling windows with the city lights glowing through. 

Sheena was talented. We laughed and joked. Then, like an overcast sky, she changed. She questioned me. She asked, why did I clear my throat? If I answered, because my throat’s dry, she insisted I tell her why I really cleared my throat. Her questions were circular. We were friends, but I was always slightly hesitant around her. 

Tasha was my friend for years in the DTES. I met her when I was twenty-one. Her body including her face was burned when she was a little kid. Tasha, her brother, and her mother were all asleep in their house when her stepfather set the house on fire. He tried to kill them all, but he didn’t succeed. But she was scarred for life because of the fire. I asked if it bothered her to have burns on her face and her body. She said, no, I don’t think about it. I don’t remember what I looked like before I was burned. I never told her that I didn’t like my own appearance. Yet she knew, she felt it because she often told me, don’t worry, you look pretty.

Tasha lived above me, so she helped me get up to her floor when I wanted to visit someone there. I helped her get to the fourth floor when she wanted to see Marissa. Sheena hated her. If I heard Sheena screaming at someone in the hallway and went out there to see who it was often it was Tasha, leaving Marissa’s room. I didn’t understand why Sheena hated her. Maybe her reasons were as tangled up as her thoughts. 

On the way to the elevators, I passed by Marissa’s room. Next to her room was the apartment where the Indian girl lived with her little boy. I hadn’t seen her much since the day in the elevator when she asked me how to get drugs. Waiting at the elevator I noticed a piece of paper taped to her door. I walked closer to read it. The note said, I don’t want my boy anymore so take him away. I reread the note. I knocked on her door. When she came to the door, she seemed calm. I expected her to act differently. She wasn’t flustered or crying so I felt angry. I asked her,

“Why did you write this on your door? If the staff saw this and called somebody they could take your boy away.”

 She didn’t flinch. She told me she didn’t care. I wanted to shake her but I instead I ripped her note into little pieces and dropped it at her feet. 

There was something about the girl that caused me to feel uneasy. I felt like she was teetering on a cliff or standing near the edge of a building and a strong wind was waiting to sweep her over the edge.

 She lived so close to Marissa’s room so I asked Marissa if she saw her much. She said she did. The girl noticed Marissa sold dope and she walked into her room when Marissa’s door was propped open, to see if she could get some dope. I asked Marissa, 

“Does she buy dope?” 

She said,

“No, she just asks me to give it to her. I always tell her I don’t have any.”

Near the end of 2015, and the beginning of 2016, the ambulance sirens were playing their soundtrack outside my window. I fell asleep to the music of the sirens, and I woke up to the same music. It was as if there was only one constant siren. I left my room one day and I passed by Sheena lighting a candle in front of my neighbor’s door. Tracy moved in after Nicola left. I hardly saw her, and now she was gone because she overdosed on fentanyl. After Sheena lit a candle for Tracy, the other women on the fourth floor all brought candles. When someone died the staff wrote about them and posted it in the lobby.

A Native woman lived across from Marissa’s room but she never became friends with anyone on the fourth floor, and she didn’t have any friends in the building. For a time, a man came to visit her, and she screamed so loudly at him it woke me up, all the way down at the other end of the hallway. She was combative so I avoided her. I waited to get on the elevator until after her because whoever she turned her attention towards she might bear the brunt of her screaming.

Except she started screaming inside of her room when she was alone. I was walking to the elevator one day when I noticed her door was torn off the hinges. Soon after, the woman was moved into Tracy’s old room, next to my room, and we began to share a wall. Sheena lived on the other side of the woman’s room, so now she, too, shared a wall with the woman.

It was August and the heat was bearing down like a weight. I felt like I couldn’t escape it, and I couldn’t get any fresh air into my room. I had two fans. My friend bought me an air conditioner, but it needed an open window to work, and our windows only opened far enough to stick one hand outside. 

Sheena was in the hallway, arguing. I went out to see who she was arguing with and she grabbed my arm. 

“They moved her beside us. Did you see what she did to her old room? She’s crazy. Come with me, I’ll show you.”

“I heard you arguing out here with someone.”

“Yeah, her, she called me a stupid bitch and then she wouldn’t open her door.”

She kicked the woman’s door.

Sheena turned so I followed her down the hall towards the woman’s old room. At the old room, Sheena maneuvered the unusually heavy door, still half hanging from the hinges, so we could pass underneath it. 

When we walked into the woman’s room and I saw what surfaced from inside of the woman’s mind, reflected onto physical objects, the whole world fell silent. The sirens outside stopped sounding, the laughter in the hallway ended in midair, Sheena’s voice disappeared. The evidence of what was boiling up inside of the woman was displayed like a forensic report everywhere in her old room. The woman, alone in her room, pulled apart and ripped down and ripped up, everything nailed into place. The kitchen cupboards were torn from the walls, one by one. Then the cupboard doors were pulled off. Her room was destroyed. But the sheer strength it took was shocking. She reduced it all to garbage. I didn’t notice her personal belongings destroyed because I saw much more than broken dishes or destroyed clothes. It seemed impossible for one human to do, and more so because she used her hands. There were no tools strewn around. She wasn’t a drug user. This wasn’t superhuman strength because of using drugs. 

“See what she did. And the staff moved her into a room between our rooms.”

Sheena’s complaining was drowned out by my thoughts. I considered the door hanging off the hinges. When I was offered a room in Sorella, the first thing I did was check the door. My door was kicked in the DTES and twice while I was sleeping. I wanted to make sure it was a strong door. The manager who showed me the room, watched when I shut the door to check how heavy it was. She said, no one will break into your room. She was right. Every time I left my room, I struggled to pull open the heavy metal door. Yet, this woman somehow pulled her door off the thick metal hinges. 

After the woman lived in the room beside my room for a few days, she started screaming again. She screamed incessantly. She screamed for hours, as loud as someone has ever screamed. She was alone, she wasn’t screaming at somebody in her room. She was screaming, I’m going to kill you, or you motherfucker. It never ended. If I fell asleep listening to her scream but woke up and I didn’t hear it, I thought it’s over. Except it wasn’t over. She started screaming again. Sheena wouldn’t put up with the woman screaming, night and day. She banged on the wall with a pan, she swore at the woman, she threatened her, but nothing stopped the woman from screaming. At first, I felt sad for the woman. But the constant screaming made it was harder to be nice. I couldn’t think over the noise she made.

After a week of her screaming, I called the staff. I said they needed to do something. She should go to the hospital. Everyone on our floor was stressed and Sheena wanted to force the woman to shut up. I told the staff it wasn’t a good idea for Sheena to be so angry.

Sheena went down to the lobby filled with rage. She screamed too, and she ordered the staff to stop the woman from screaming. The staff said there wasn’t anything they could do about it.

It was going on two weeks and the woman was still screaming. I was amazed that anyone could scream for so long. I’ve screamed for a couple of minutes and lost my voice. Then her screaming changed. Instead of, Fuck you, I’m going to kill you, she started screaming, Help me. It was so pitiful and sad.

I was done with the staff. I could not believe how indifferent they were to someone who was suffering. Sheena was more enraged than I’d ever seen her. She started a petition to have the woman removed from the building. She knocked on my door early one morning to tell me that I was the only person on the fourth floor who hadn’t signed it. I just didn’t believe it would matter. The staff knew about the woman and they knew how much the noise was upsetting everyone on the fourth floor. I couldn’t imagine what the poor woman was experiencing. But they wouldn’t do anything to help her or us. It was shades of Nicola, all over again.

In the staff office a number for the mental health car was posted. The staff phoned to ask for the car to come when someone needed urgent mental health care. The car came with a policeman, or woman and a mental health nurse. Because the woman was screaming Help me, I thought it was enough to call the car to the building. I phoned the office and begged them to call it. It might calm everyone else down and the people in the mental health car would know how to  get the incessant screaming to stop. The staff I asked said, No we can’t call anybody. I was in disbelief. What better reason was there to call the mental health car? Why did they have its number? I told the staff they made me sick, and I thought they were disgusting. The staff said, 

“Why don’t you call someone?’

“Me? Who will the hell listen to me? You won’t listen to me, why would somebody else? She’s screaming ‘Help me!’ Don’t you care? You’re the staff. If you don’t care then you better go. Drop the front door keys on the filing cabinet on your way out. Leave them beside the needles and the crack pipes, with the rest of the harm reduction supplies, at least those things are helping people. You’re completely useless.”

On the phone, I only had a minute to tell the staff off or they hung up on me. I called the woman back. She answered,

Sorella”, in a happy voice.

I asked her,

“Are you going to sit in your locked office all night watching the Bachelor? Or are you going to do what they paid you to do?” 

She said, 

“I’m going to hang up now.”

“That’s what I thought you were going to do, nothing at all.”

Instead of hanging up, she said,

 “Why don’t you call the police?”

I never wanted to call the police. But the woman on the phone, in the office, was a huge, unmovable boulder and I couldn’t get her to budge no matter how much I tried pushing her. I was furious she asked me to call the police when it was her job. 

I called 911 and told the dispatcher a woman was screaming, Help me, in my building. They dispatched a police car, and two policemen came to my door. I explained to them about my neighbor screaming, how she was screaming for help. They knocked on her door and I heard them talking to her. I was surprised she opened her door. I felt like she must have been so worn out from screaming for such a long time. She wasn’t taken anywhere that night, but she was gone shortly after. Removed from the building, like Nicola was removed. She should have never suffered for so long. There were ways to help her, except the staff refused.

The woman was screaming in August and I moved out of Sorella in January.

I’ve been back to Sorella to visit the people I care about who still live there. The first time I returned, I went to see Tasha. I was wondering about the Indian girl and her little boy. 

Tasha said, 

“Oh, her little boy was taken away.”

I was silent.

“After that, she was in someone’s room on the sixth floor but the woman whose room she was in, she fell asleep. While she slept the girl stole all her dope. She took her dope, and she went downstairs to her own room and she did it all.”

My heart fluttered for a second. I looked up from the lines and grooves on Tasha’s linoleum floor.

“And it was way too much for her to do. She died.”

I remembered ripping her note up into little pieces and I wanted so much to go back but instead of being angry, I wanted to hug her. I should have hugged her and told her I know what it feels like to be alone. I should have said she was a good Mom, even if she wasn’t able to care for her little boy. Maybe it was too hard to look after her little boy by herself.

The women living in Sorella accepted things most people would never tolerate. Still, they were grateful for the help they were received. Every person who lived in Sorella was thankful that they were important enough to be given a place to live. 

 I was aware of how we were perceived. When picketers held protests to stop construction on similar buildings in neighborhoods other than in the DTES, I understood we weren’t welcomed by all people. Somehow a shift took place; the people who were victims of violence became the people others feared. 

The extreme rules in Sorella highlight how the women changed every aspect of their lives when they accepted housing in a social housing building. Where else do tenants have so few rights? Most free adults have never lived with so much control asserted over their lives. The reason it happened in Sorella was because the women agreed to live with the restrictions because they had no other options. 

When women were referred to as unhousable, they were more grateful to be offered social housing. Describing people as unhousable seems like an explanation for allowing them to live in unsafe, substandard housing for years or the reason they were asked to follow rules no other group of tenants would agree to. The women complained far less than most people would.

 Nonetheless, I felt grateful to live in a brand new, clean women’s building. I learned to accept women as friends because we depended on each other. We were stronger together than we were alone. But the good experiences at Sorella haven’t erased the memories of the sad experiences or the tragic deaths of the women who expected little but deserved so much better.


Meredith Macdonald’s difficult youth shaped every aspect of who she is. After years spent trying to make sense of her own world, she carries deep empathy for younger people, especially females, who struggle alone, yet profoundly desire acceptance, and attachments. Today, Meredith is a student, she writes for an online magazine, Living Here, and continues to write about living in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver- the one place she understands better than most people.