Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
As it sat empty for more than two years, the question surrounding the Neechi Commons building at the corner of Main Street and Euclid Avenue was normally some variation of this: when will somebody else move in?
Last week Jennifer Watson did.
Her bright second-floor bedroom used to be a boardroom, and where the walls might have once featured whiteboards, Watson has taped up several photographs of her idol Marilyn Monroe, and strung up twinkly lights to set a homey vibe.
"If I wasn’t here, I’d probably be on the street," she said.
Watson is one of 20 people now living in the former grocery store complex, which opened to much fanfare in 2013 but closed in June 2018 as its ownership co-op was saddled with massive debts, leaving a gap in North Point Douglas. The dorm-style, long-term housing project Watson lives in is just one endeavour the building’s new tenant, local non-profit Sscope Inc., is hoping to achieve within its walls.
"It’s almost like this building was meant for us," the organization’s executive director Angela McCaughan said Monday.
Sscope plans to convert the former grocery area into a thrift store where people living with mental illness can get employment experience. The main floor will house a common area with computers, phones and workshop spaces. Eventually, members will get employment opportunities in a self-run restaurant and bakery. The former artisan shop is already being converted into a 24-hour safe space for LGBTTQ+ people, with 10 beds.
Having social housing was a long-term goal for the organization, McCaughan said, but COVID-19 sped up its timeline. When the pandemic hit, the organization’s old base on Arlington Street was converted into a shelter that fed 160 people daily and served 750 unique guests between April and June.
McCaughan said that overwhelming response drove home the need to act quickly on housing, and she got in touch with Assiniboine Credit Union, which was the primary lender for the Neechi Commons co-op and, currently, the building, which she'd been eyeing since the day it closed.
A one-year lease deal was struck, and in its duration, Sscope will run a capital campaign to raise the $3.1 million needed to purchase the building outright, McCaughan said. (When the building opened in 2013, it came at a cost of $8 million).
The deal came as a surprise to Russ Rothney, the treasurer of Neechi Foods Co-op Ltd., who said the group was told the credit union was only interested in a purchase, not a rental agreement, when it reached out in April. Rothney said that Neechi’s proposal was also tenant-based, and that the co-op wants to meet with Sscope to figure out a way for the two groups to work together.
For tenants such as Watson, the cost for room and board is $589 per month, which is covered for most people through Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) or disability economic support. In total, the housing project will generate about $12,000 every month at full occupancy, and those funds are reinvested into the organization.
As a registered charity, Sscope is also accepting donations to help run its day-to-day operations, as well as hygiene products for tenants to use and good-quality household items, clothing and furniture to sell in the thrift store.
While staying at Sscope’s new headquarters, tenants can be employed in a variety of fields — including lawn maintenance, snow-clearing, moving, retail or restaurant service — to earn income and receive training.
Since moving in, Watson has helping to get the thrift store up and running.
Like a lot of people these days, she's working from home, and she couldn't be happier.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
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