Rows of tiny cabins across a Kitchener, Ont., neighbourhood have been catching the eye of several communities across the province that’ve begun duplicating the model, hoping to bridge the gap between homelessness and permanent housing.
A Better Tent City (ABTC) co-founder and chair Jeff Wilmer says compassion from the community, support from city politicians and the local public school board made their small community possible, and it’s inspiring copies across the province.
“Now Waterloo Region, the municipal government here, has basically replicated our community with a second tiny home community, also with 50 cabins,” Wilmer said.
“It looks very much like ours, and so having a good solution distributed in multiple places seems to be one approach.”
Peterborough came on board this past week with its own cabin community, while Hamilton continues to explore the prospect.
The intention is to temporarily house people living rough with challenges, like mental illness, drug addiction and isolation, in a community with supports to stabilize their lives.
But for some stakeholders, it’s still too early to tell if the scheme has legs long-term and can be a viable transitional piece to house those experiencing homelessness.
In a search to put some sort of roof over the heads of roughly a hundred suffering chronic homelessness in Waterloo Region, Kitchener’s ABTC was set up in April 2020 in the city centre as a temporary home for 50 people through 40 tiny cabins on an industrial site.
Wilmer credits the idea to the late Ron Doyle, a local wealthy industrialist, who owned an event space called Lot 42 that couldn’t operate amid COVID pandemic restrictions.
The community-minded Doyle saw his empty site as an opportunity to ease burdens on local shelters, overrun with unhoused individuals, and offered it up as a tent encampment with the venue’s main building providing hygiene and sanitation facilities.
Small cabins would become a part of the equation not long after an impulse buy from the travelling Doyle who spotted the structures for sale at a business on a nearby rural road.
“So we thought, why not use that (Lot 42) as our kitchen and our washroom then we’ll bring in tiny homes or cabins to give people a safe place to sleep,” Wilmer recalled.
“It started off with about a dozen sleeping cabins, and now we have 42 cabins, 50 residents, after moving a couple of times.”
Donors by way of residents, businesses and local organizations like the United Way and the Community Foundation gradually came on board, not only providing cash through fundraisers but with amenities and everyday items.
“And we haven’t really had a dedicated program towards seeking out volunteers or doing fundraising,” Wilmer revealed.
“It’s really been organic, so that’s been a really heartwarming element of our success.”
The non-profit initiative pays for operating costs via a portion of monthly Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support program payments that occupants receive regularly.
Additionally, community donations assist in covering the wages of onsite service staff.
Wilmer said the concept hasn’t always been “smooth sailing” over the past few years, having to fight off challenges and negative responses from city residents.
“But for the most part, the community has been fairly understanding that people need help and something needs to be done,” he said.
“The city was really helpful at our first site, they found a way to waive the enforcement of the zoning bylaw because we had set up on an industrial property.”
Doyle’s death in 2021 brought new owners to Lot 42, resulting in a couple of relocations for the project before the tiny cabins finally settled in an industrial area at Ardelt Avenue, not far from its original starting point.
In mid-October, the city extended the land use licence agreement which should keep the program running through April of 2025 next to the Waterloo Region District School Board’s head office, on grounds that the board and city co-own.
“From the very beginning in the dark days of the pandemic, our city stepped up to support the ABTC initiative and, most importantly, its residents,” mayor Barry Vrbanovic boasted in a statement after the renewal.
The success of ABTC spurred the Region of Waterloo to join up with modular-focused construction company NOW Housing for a similar venture west of Kitchener that opened in May 2023.
Assistant director of housing services Kelly-Anne Salerno says regionally-owned surplus land was the key to developing the Erbs Road community which accommodates a similar number of residents, about 50, into tiny homes of about 10 square meters in size.
“We were able to take that surplus land certainly much quicker than if we were to look and then obtain land from a private landlord,” Salerno explained.
Modular home builder NOW Housing would be tasked with providing the Erbs Road dwellings after the company replied to an ad from the region seeking an outdoor shelter builder from the region.
NOW’s Project manager Chris Pursel sent details of their “dual suite,” a 40 foot container divided into two separate dwellings.
“Each side has one 20 foot unit in it that has a kitchen, bathroom, laundry, sleeping area … everything that one person would need,” he explained.
Located next to a paramedic waste management facility, a region water service and a training facility for municipal emergency services, the cabins are powered and heated, and also include a side table and storage space.
“They wanted something that was private, that didn’t require a permit and that everyone had their own separate room,” Pursel said.
A nearby trailer provides showers and laundry while a larger common area under a white tent has a kitchen, fridges, microwave, tables and couches.
Check-ins are required via a security cabin at the gate and an onsite store offers several non-perishable items as well as fruits and vegetables. Visitors are also not allowed at the site, although tenants’ pets are.
In addition, Pursel said medical staff check in 15 hours a week and local social workers also check in on occasion.
The site cost some $2.4 million in capital money to develop and is almost 10 kilometres from Kitchener’s city centre, which does present some challenges for residents who want to travel during the day.
Options include a 12-minute walk to a bus stop, a shuttle that comes twice a day or a two-hour walk.
Salerno says the biggest takeaway of the temporary project, scheduled to run 18 to 24 months, is getting those unsheltered and in precarious situations off the streets.
Waterloo politicians are now even going further after a staff report recommended the city add some $3 million to the 2024 budget to build another site of cabins.
Kingston’s “sleeping cabin” initiative got off the ground in March of 2022, but several relocations over the past year spurred city council to end the experiment.
Chrystal Wilson, executive director of Our Livable Solutions (OLB) which runs the Kingston, Ont., site, says shelters closing during the pandemic in 2020 spurred on development of their village.
Having a member in her family unhoused, Wilson learned living in a tent at city a park was not something the bulk of encampment residents preferred.
“I asked some of them what a home might look like for them and many described a tiny home in a village,” she recalls.
Cancoil manufacturing would produce the first cabin utilizing their own family and friends to build it for free, before OLB would turn to Modular Energy Sytems in Niagara Falls for its current models which run at about $25,000 each with power and heat.
In November 2021, Council voted in favour of the pilot project with ten cabins at Portsmouth Olympic Harbor – a sailing Marina typically underused during the winter.
When doors opened in mid-January 2022, the site had a row of 10 cabins and places for showers, laundry, a kitchen, bathrooms and space for people “hang out in,” according to Wilson.
Over two years, Wilson says they were funded through Ontario’s Social Services COVID Relief Fund and $250,000 worth of donations to help pay for the cabins.
OLB received some $216,000 from the city for operating costs, plus residents paid rent.
On Nov. 7, councillors opted to move onto other programs to put up their unhoused, with site staff expected to operate the existing program until the end of March.
A key factor leading to the decision to wind down the initiative was all of the moving back and forth four kilometres between the harbour in the winter and Centre 70 arena in the spring.
“It became too disruptive for residents, moving every six months, it’s hard on them to focus on moving forward into permanent housing,” Wilson suggested.
“We brought forward a whole bunch of other options … instead, what the city voted for was to close and cease funding, which makes absolutely no sense to us at all.”
During the November vote, Mayor Bryan Paterson said the project had served its purpose and suggested other programs already up and running as well as some “in the works” would be better options, like permanent affordable housing.
“Being able to be home and in a renovated unit with more supportive housing options that we have, I think the council was comfortable that this was the solution we want to pursue,” Paterson said.
A spokesperson for the city told Global News the municipality is engaged with “a few different tiny homes projects” but was unable to provide comment as of the publishing of this post.
Peterborough, Ont., launched its 50-unit Modular Bridge Housing Community at a Wolfe Street site in late November, with expectations of being operational for close to two years.
The community includes a service hub to support residents and has 24-hour staffing from non-profit the Elizabeth Fry Society as well as security.
Elizabeth Fry executive director Debbie Carriere characterizes the development as an upgrade, since many occupants were a part of an encampment that used to be on the site.
“So it’s sort of like they’re transitioning into our units,” she said.
“It’s on that site which used to be a parking lot for a municipal building.”
Residents chosen for the program sign occupancy agreements and can take part in care or intensive care plans during their journey back to some sort of longer-term housing option.
“So our units come with a double bed and bedding, air conditioning, heating, a mini fridge,” coordinator Jennifer Turtscher says.
“We’re also doing a furniture drive specifically for this project, so people can go in and see if they want any of the furniture.”
Meanwhile, Peterborough’s Action for Tiny Homes (PATH) also has a transitional housing project planned on the property of the former Peterborough Humane Society.
The PATH plan, which is TBD, will add 15 sleeping cabins with a goal of expanding to 30 homes by the end of 2024.
The eight-foot-by-12-foot homes come equipped with a bed, a nightstand and electrical outlets.
PATH says the former humane society building would offer washroom, kitchen and shower facilities.
While tiny homes sites are up and running in Waterloo and Peterbrough, a similar project Hamilton, Ont., has endured a rocky road for almost two years, being sent back to the drawing board several times.
In the summer, city council settled on going with the Hamilton Alliance for Tiny Shelters (HATS) group with 25 eight-by-10-foot cabins earmarked for a city centre neighbourhood just two kilometers north of city hall.
Organizers would kibosh that idea in early October, citing that the investment required to build it was “too significant” with extras like a kitchen facility, showers and laundry needing to be acquired.
That decision came about a month after a neighbourhood meeting with residents was cancelled due to “physically and verbally aggressive behaviour” toward security personnel at the front door of a community centre.
Following the cancellation, several residents told Global News they were disappointed with a lack of consultation from council before green-lighting the site neighbouring CN rail tracks, a residential community, an elementary school and a posh event centre.
Housing services division head Michelle Baird said that although there was no specific public consultation for the site, there had been “broader consultations” in 2023 on managing encampments, including sanctioned sites.
The HATS concept was approved by city councillors in mid-August as one of several ideas to tackle an encampment and housing crisis that’s led to roughly 200 people living outside.
Dan Bednis, the chair of HATS board of directors, says since the nixing of the city centre location they’ve scouted some 15 alternative locations and hope to narrow down some options for another attempt in the summer of 2024.
“It takes us anywhere from three to six months depending on the profile of a property to be established,” Bednis explained.
“So we’re hoping by January to have an announcement for everyone.”
A Better Tent City’s Jeff Wilmer believes it’s likely still too early to make a judgment on the tiny homes concept and whether it is in fact a useful piece that bridges the unhoused with permanent housing.
He admits he has mixed feelings after three years since only around eight to ten people he knows of from ABTC have found stable accommodations, a number he characterizes as “not great.”
“There’s a few reasons for that. One is there’s not a lot of available spaces in supportive housing that’s come available in the community,” said Wilmer.
“Second is sometimes when people are offered housing, they decline it because they either feel they’re not ready or they’re afraid of the isolation, or they just value community so much that they prefer life at ABTC.”
Waterloo’s Kelly-Anne Salerno says a recent evaluation of Erbs Road points to some success with 26 of the 74 people that have stayed there, or roughly 38 per cent, having left. Of those, 10 have found permanent accommodations.
“We did this evaluation at the four-month mark and that’s some really good odds in terms of moving people to permanent options,” Salerno said.