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‘A place they know they’re welcome’: Are tiny shelters an answer for homelessness?

Tiny homes are exactly what they sound like — and Ontario is increasingly adopting them to support the unhoused
Written by Justin Chandler
A Better Tent City is a tiny-home community for unhoused people in Kitchener. (Justin Chandler)

KITCHENER—Around noon on a sunny day in early March, A Better Tent City is bustling. Health and social workers from Sanguen Health Centre pull up outside in a bus, staff and volunteers prepare food in the kitchen, and residents come and go from their tiny homes. The community of 42 shed-sized cabins in Kitchener sits on a patch of lawn between a school-board administration building and Highways 7 and 8. About 50 residents live here in homes lined up between a fence and a building that houses the kitchen, laundry room and common space.

One resident, Laura Waboose, has lived in ABTC since it began at a nearby location in 2020. “It’s amazing how we kind of created it ourselves,” she says of the community, which started to provide a safer alternative to living in tent encampments. “We can call ourselves a community now. We all get along and everybody knows each other, so we all take care of each other. It doesn’t really feel like a shelter environment. It feels more like a home than anything.”                                         

Soon, ABTC won’t be the only such community for unhoused people in Kitchener-Waterloo. Waterloo Region is currently working to launch a 50-person community next to the paramedics’ headquarters in the southwest corner of Waterloo. Homes will be constructed by NOW Housing out of shipping containers, and the site will be managed in part by the Working Centre. The goal, says Peter Sweeney, Waterloo Region’s commissioner of community services, is to provide people with a dignified and safe alternative to the traditional shelter system until they can transition to permanent or supportive housing. According to a recent point-in-time count, the region has about 1,000 unhoused residents, he says, half of whom are chronically homeless.

“The evidence points out there are folks who experience chronic homelessness that, for their own valid reasons, as individuals who have agency, choose not to access what I would call the traditional shelter system,” he says. The 50 incoming cabins represent a 10 per cent increase to the shelter system’s capacity. They will, though, serve a different function, allowing residents to live in individual units and providing access to social supports.

Agenda segment, September 16, 2022: Can tiny shelters bridge the homelessness gap?

Canadian cities — such as Kitchener-Waterloo, Calgary, Fredericton, Kingston, and Winnipeg — are increasingly turning to tiny shelters as a response to homelessness. Groups in municipalities including Hamilton, Peterborough, and Belleville are all working to establish communities for their cities’ unhoused, although none have yet received political approval. TVO Today speaks to experts and advocates about the tiny shelters-approach, how it can be replicated, and its potential benefits and drawbacks.

Tiny-home communities in Ontario

A Better Tent City — Kitchener

Jeff Wilmer, Chair of ABTC’s board, attributes the site’s progress to the attitude and approach of his co-founder Ron Doyle, upon whose land the first iteration of ABTC began in spring 2020. “We had a guy with a vision, with property and a really amazing risk tolerance to say: ‘Let’s do it. Let them stop us,’” Wilmer says. (Doyle died about a year after ABTC’s founding.)

Jeff Wilmer is the chair of A Better Tent CIty's board, and the project's co-founder. (Justin Chandler)

Unaware of any similar sites in Ontario at the time, the two looked to projects in Eugene, Oregon, and San Jose, California, for inspiration. “We were looking to help people who had no other option,” Wilmer says, and that brought them to Nadine Green. She works as the live-in site coordinator, a role she describes as “kind of like a mom.” Before ABTC, Green ran a convenience store in downtown Kitchener. Around 2018, she turned it into a de facto drop-in centre for unhoused people. Green set up chairs in her store and posted the Wi-Fi password on the door. She started taking food donations. “People had nowhere to go,” she says. Barriers such as mental illness, addiction, and restrictions on pets and couples staying together prevent people from accessing emergency shelters. Green’s landlord evicted her in January 2020, saying that nearby businesses were complaining. She says one night she prayed that the people she’d been helping would be okay. The next day, she got a call from Doyle. He and Wilmer brought her into the fold and asked her to pick who’d live in the community they were planning. “I jumped at the chance.”

Laura Waboose (left) was unhoused when Nadine Green (right) invited her to live at A Better Tent City. (Justin Chandler)

Waboose met her partner at Green’s store and says that they had just set up a tent to stay in when Green came by and offered them a place. “It worked out pretty awesome.”

The approach at ABTC is “patience, love, forgiveness,” Green says. If someone breaks a window, for example, they can still stay. The site’s main shared space has a list naming a handful of people who have been banned for violence or extreme disruption, Wilmer says, but that’s a last resort. Green says she’s seen people change from being “difficult” by “being here and seeing the care and the love that we give.” The site doesn’t have security and permits pets, couples, visitors, and drug use.

Nadine Green, the live-in site superintendent of A Better Tent City, stands in front of her sleeping cabin. (Justin Chandler)

ABTC has developed over the years, adding amenities and programs including shower and laundry facilities, regular visits from health-care and harm-reduction workers, a methadone-treatment program, and opportunities for residents to work and earn wages. It’s also moved locations. Throughout that time, the site has benefited from regulatory support from governments, but funding comes from community donations and a portion of Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program payments residents receive (about $20,000 each month total). Green, two other full-time staff, and roughly six contract part-time staff are paid, but board members like Wilmer and the site’s roughly 100 volunteers are not.

Few residents of ABTC have transitioned to supportive housing, Wilmer says, noting that originally they thought the site would be more transitional. “The challenges these folks live with, the mental illness and the drug addiction, are really difficult to overcome,” he says. “They’re not soon going to be ready to enter the workforce or be able to live independently.”

A volunteer cooks in A Better Tent City's kitchen, which is in the same building as their common area and laundry room. 

As Green puts it: “People can stay here for as long as they want until they heal.” Wilmer says ABTC hasn’t collected detailed metrics to measure success, but he does have a definition of it: “Part of it is keeping people out of hospital. Part is keeping people out of jail. Part of it is helping people graduate to housing. But I think the main thing is giving people dignity and hope in their lives. They’ve got stability now. They have a place they know they’re welcome to be.”

Another goal, Wilmer says, has been “to show that this model could work and then to encourage other communities to copy the idea.”

Our Livable Solutions — Kingston

An overhead view of cabins at Our Livable Solutions. (Courtesy Chrystal Wilson)

One project ABTC inspired is Our Livable Solutions, a tiny-shelter community in Kingston. Chrystal Wilson is the executive director of the site, where 12 people live in 12 sleeping cabins. She says that, in March 2020, when people formed an encampment at the city’s Belle Park, she learned residents’ stories and asked why they weren’t accessing traditional supports. She says many residents reported being restricted from services and didn’t want to live in the COVID-19 isolation centre the municipality was offering at the time, finding the limitations too intense. Having heard about ABTC, Wilson visited, took photos, then shared them with people living in the park. “That’s the kind of place they were looking for and that they felt they would be comfortable stabilizing.”

Once they got permission from the city in early 2022 to use the land, Wilson and her team set up at Portsmouth Olympic Harbour; they moved to Kingston’s Centre 70 Arena for the spring and summer, as the harbour is then busy with seasonal activities, then back to the harbour in early fall. On March 21, Kingston city councillors will vote on a staff report recommending the city continue to work with OLS through winter 2024, with a move to Centre 70 (where they propose the delivery of five more cabins) this spring. Wilson says the goal is to find a permanent site, since moves are disruptive. OLS accepts donations, and the city funds its operations to the tune of $28,000 each month. The staff report notes that city funding breaks down to about $2,300 per resident per month, with 12 residents. At 17 residents, the cost would be about $1,650 per person per month. OLS pays staff roughly $20 an hour, and there are work opportunities on-site for current and former residents. Wilson is unpaid.

Unlike ABTC, OLS is a transitional program. “We have an expectation of moving people to permanent housing,” Wilson says. When a space opens, the city chooses three people on the local by-name list, and OLS reviews them to decide whether they’d be a good fit, considering their social and technical skills (such as cooking or maintenance). Once someone is living at OLS, the team works with them to develop goals and access health-care, services and supports.

Residents are only supposed to stay 364 days, but there are exceptions if they have outstanding needs, such as health care, and the clock resets when the site moves. “Often people are coming in with no ID, pretty significant medical needs and dental needs. It’s always starting with the birth certificate and getting that in place and then health cards and photo-ID card and getting taxes up to date,” Wilson says. “By the time we get all that done, it’s a good six, eight months before they’re ready for housing.”

So far, 27 people have been residents at OLS, Wilson says. Five moved into permanent housing, five into temporary housing, three are now unhoused, and two have died. To encourage the transition from OLS, the team provides apartment living as best it can, Wilson says. Residents have fridges in their cabins and cook for themselves. The site allows pets and couples, and residents have the keys to their own doors. “We’re trying to treat [residents] like adults,” Wilson says. “A lot of the [homelessness] system treats people like they can’t make their own decisions.” No drug dealing is allowed on site, but there is no policy against residents using substances in their cabins. There are harm-reduction supplies on site, and staff are trained in overdose prevention.

OLS is “a lot more tolerant than other than other agencies for behaviours as long as they’re not violent safety issues,” Wilson says. “We recognize that people have good days and bad days, and we help them through their bad days and celebrate good days.” After several chances and mediation sessions, Wilson says, OLS has discharged three residents who were not able to coexist within the community. She adds that OLS maintains contact with and supports former residents as best it can.

Community consultation

Eric Weissman, a social-science professor at the University of New Brunswick, says tiny-home communities often succeed or fail based on community perception. “As tragic as it might be, [homelessness] seems normal in a city laneway, but not normal when a bunch of people get together and build a camp in a park,” says Weissman, who has researched and reported on tiny-home projects and has himself experienced homelessness.

Local politicians have seen housed residents’ concerns as grounds for deferring or denying projects. In December, one Peterborough city councillor expressed concern over a lack of neighbourhood consultation on a proposed site, saying, “I will defend the families and seniors in my ward.” That same month, Hamilton city councillors deferred regulatory and funding approval for the Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters (the group attempting to build a community in that city), instead directing the group to find new potential locations. It had secured a private site and consulted neighbours about it, but locals who were against the project said they weren’t consulted enough and voiced concerns about such things as the local economy, the area being “oversaturated” with social services, and what children might see walking to school past the cabins. “You give them a foothold in this city, and they’re coming for your ward next,” one resident told councillors. In January, councillors again deferred a decision about potential sites, with several citing community consultation as a top concern.

A model of the type of sleeping cabin the Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters wants to use. (Justin Chandler)

However, Wilson says, it’s possible to build understanding between unhoused residents and their housed neighbours. At OLS, she notes, locals often walk by the tiny shelters and mingle with residents, a practice that engenders compassion. In a public-information session in February, she read a letter from a volunteer who lives near the cabins and wrote: “My personal observation has been that the neighbourhood has embraced this little community more than they originally thought they might. I know that I did.” In another letter Wilson shared with TVO Today, a neighbour and supporter who says they live about 200 metres from OLS writes, “I believe that, by following the pattern at the Portsmouth site, the neighbourhood in the vicinity of any proposed location would experience comparably little impact,” as compared to an overnight shelter.

Are tiny homes a solution for homelessness?

“Your average citizen is seeing homelessness grow in their communities, and they’re alarmed by it. They should be. We all should be,” says Carrie Anne Marshall, a professor at Western University who researches homelessness and poverty. But, she says, “I think we need to be careful of using Band-Aid solutions because we’re in a panic.”

Residents at ABTC store a lot of their possessions outside their sleeping cabins, some beneath awnings. (Justin Chandler)

Tiny homes are “perfectly dignified,” she says, but when you downgrade to a sleeping cabin, losing basics such as running water, “it’s just one step up from an encampment. I wouldn’t want my family to live in a sleeping cabin.” And, she adds, they cost too much: “When we start to allocate municipal dollars to projects like this, we’re actually diverting funding away from a starving system.” Pointing to OLS, where each cabin cost the city about $17,000 (Wilson says they’d be cheaper if purchased in greater volume), Marshall says, “We could have used that funding for rent supplements, perhaps putting a down payment on a property to offer permanent housing and use an intervention that we know is effective … How can we rationalize keeping people unhoused and in a state of precarity for longer at a greater cost than permanent housing?” While it’s true that shelters don’t work for a lot of people, she says, “why can’t we go back to shelters and actually refine them so that people do want to go to them?”

In Wilson’s opinion, those who advocate for traditional shelters over cabins have a responsibility to prove the former work: “We have to remember the horrific conditions people are willing to live in to be to avoid the traditional settings.” And, tiny-shelter advocates say, sleeping cabins can be ready soon,  whereas emergency shelters and permanent housing take more time to build — time during which people remain unhoused.

“I know that a tiny home is not ideal,” says Green, who lives in one at ABTC. “But it’s better than the bridge or the bank that you’re getting kicked out of. People can actually sleep and rest.”

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