On a former industrial site in Kitchener there are around 2 dozen brightly coloured cabins. At less than 100 square feet each, they are so small they don’t require a building permit, and yet they are shelter for roughly 50 residents, people who otherwise are facing homelessness.
This little community is called a Better Tent City, and the small homes offer crucial features to the individuals staying here: privacy, a door with a lock, and a safe place to keep their belongings.
One resident, named Richard King says that it’s like being at home. “If I need an escape, I just come out here, throw on a movie, close and lock the door and I’ve got my own little corner to get away.” King is a contractor by trade and built a makeshift kitchenette in his cabin and even hung some things on the walls.
It’s a safer alternative to the big tent cities that have been growing as COVID-19 outbreaks have been hitting homeless shelters, and more people lose their homes.
The cabins surround a grey metal building that used to be a venue for conferences and events. Inside is a former bar that has been retrofitted into a kitchen, and a large open room where newcomers can stay in tents until a cabin frees up.
Keeping the community running is co-ordinator Nadine Green, who lives on-site in a cabin of her own. Her role includes everything from sorting out donations to breaking up fights. “Sometimes people are stressed out … and they may start a fight just for no reason. And then a lot of people have addiction issues, and that can make a difference,” said Green. “Whatever happens, we just work with it.”
While she could be much better served with dedicated support from the system, she’s not entirely on her own; King pitches in with repairs and other projects, volunteers come by to drop off meals most days, and a local health van stops by twice a week for those who need a nurse. Funding comes from a hodgepodge of different sources; such as community donations and a church partnership.
As for their landlord? That would be Ron Doyle, a self-described retired industrialist. He owns Lot 42 which he turned into an event venue previously and has an interest in building alternative housing for those in need. Since there are no events to host, he turned his land into a space to house such a community.
He called Green and asked her to start moving people in. “We didn’t ask anybody, we just did it,” said Doyle.
In recent years, homelessness has been a growing issue in Kitchener. In the last decade, the average cost of rent in the city has increased by about 40 per cent, numbers from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation show.
There are roughly 6,000 households on a regional waiting list for affordable housing and about 200 people who are chronically homeless, according to the region’s director of housing services.
Kitchener City Council also hasn’t been fighting this, unlike some other communities. Instead they have insisted on some safety conditions; like working smoke alarms in every cabin, but also passed a zoning exemption to allow the community to stay for up to a year.
Right now, the clock is ticking on A Better Tent City. The site is currently for sale, although Doyle said he is committed to keeping it up and running through the end of the one-year zoning exemption.
King thinks A Better Tent City should stay. “You make friendships and you bond, and that goes a long way,” he said. “I think it would be ideal if we had a half a dozen of these little communities.”
Jeff Willmer, a volunteer and one of the individuals who came up with the concept, said volunteers are in talks with the city and the regional government about what to do next. Everything is on the table, he said, from helping current residents find supportive housing, to moving the project to a new site.
Ryan Pettipiere is the director of housing services for the Region of Waterloo, which includes the City of Kitchener. He confirmed that officials are working “to explore options” for the site, but couldn’t say at this point what those options are.
When asked if officials would consider expanding the Better Tent City to multiple locations, he said their main priority is to build more permanent, affordable housing for people, rather than more short-term or transitional shelter options.
But perhaps they should. This is essentially Housing First, only without the necessary support like job, addiction, and mental health counselling. Housing first is the cheapest and most effective method for helping the homeless and we need to figure that out.
But at least for now some people are comfortable off the streets, and that’s your Good News Story of the Day which you can read in full here.
If they do lose A Better Tent City at the end of the year, Green believes there will always be a place for it. “I hope we get to stay,” she said. “And if we don’t stay, we’ll find another place.” She continued “We’re not worried, because if a homeless person gets six months of living somewhere, that’s a big deal for them … Having six months here, it’s good.”
Story and Image from CBC News.